Disneyworld: The Planning Stages

Disneyworld: The Planning Stages

I’m a Disney girl. Disneyland is in my backyard, and I know it like the back of my hand. Can easily do both parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) in one day, because I have it down to an art. Efficiency is my middle name, and Disney is always such a fun challenge! So it’s been like a year and a half since we last went, and I’m needing a Disney fix. We started thinking about what day we wanted to go. As my “escape the country forever” plan is coming to fruition earlier than I originally expected, this would probably be my last Disney hoorah stateside. Wait- if that’s the case, shouldn’t I go out with a bang? Of course!! So the idea of going to Disneyworld instead was born.

Well, I rarely “simply” do anything, but for Disneyworld we are talking MAJOR PLANNING!!! Especially important because I know this is most likely the last time I’ll do Disneyworld in Florida. I have one shot at this and it has to be done RIGHT!! This includes, but is not limited to:
1. Figuring out which days the parks should be the least crowded.
2. Getting flights for those days.
3. Finding an AirBNB close by for those days that won’t break the bank.
4. Figuring out ground transportation.
5. Getting tickets.
6. Researching what are the “can’t miss” rides.
7. Getting Fast Passes.
8. And last, but certainly not least….WARDROBE!!! I don’t go to Disney without properly themed attire. Period. The ability to theme…it’s really the only time I care about clothes.

Let’s break each of these major events down, shall we?

1. Figuring out which days the parks should be the least crowded.
This is where a little thing called crowd calendars come in. I used the WDW Prep School Calendar. I knew we wanted to go in September, as I heard crowds are fairly light for that month (kids back in school and the peak of hurricane season), so I looked at the calendar, looked at flight prices, and decided on being in the parks September 15-17. Based on the calendar, we decided to do Magic Kingdom on the 15th, Epcot on the 16th (probably hopping back over to MK if we finish Epcot early), and Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios on the 17th.

2. Getting flights for those days.
We go for the cheapest flights, but are always willing to pay a little bit (not much) more for directs. We wanted to leave on Saturday and come back on Wednesday. Best options were Spirit Air (which we hate, but was by far the cheapest) from LAX-MCO arriving at 8pm with a one hour layover in Houston- $88.50 each one way. For coming back, United had the cheapest flight. A direct arriving LAX at 9:30pm for $93.50 total each one way- for a grand total of $182 roundtrip each. Neither of these flights allow carry on bags, just a personal item- as in must fit under your seat- which is going to make packing interesting! But we are not about to pay for a bag….

3. Finding an AirBNB close by for those days that won’t break the bank.
Yes, if you stay in one of the Disney resorts it’s all magical and you get a ton of perks and….you will need to take out a home equity loan. We don’t plan on spending any time in the room other than to sleep, so we don’t need a fancy, magical, perk-laden abode. Off to AirBNB! We looked at a few and decided on this one. $55 a night, about 15 minutes from door to parking lot of all the parks, superhost, great reviews, and everyone said it was CLEAN!! Clean is important, and some of the other properties that were a little closer in this same price range didn’t have the 5 star cleanliness stamp of approval…

4. Figuring out ground transportation.
Originally, I planned for us to just Uber. I mean, we’re going to be in the parks all day, not cruising around. Plus, you have to pay to park at Disney. So I popped open the app and calculated the costs of an Uber: $90 for round trip to the airport and $25 a day for roundtrip to the parks (same cost as parking). Plus, when we park hopped we were looking at even more money. Problem was that on Wednesday, our flight didn’t leave until 7:30pm. What in the world were we going to do all day? And how would we get there? I started looking at rental cars. Got one for $85 for our entire stay, which basically came out cheaper than using Uber (not including gas) plus gave us freedom on that last day. Sold. Rented from Economy Rent A Car. Take a copy of your car insurance policy with you so you don’t have to buy theirs.

5. Getting tickets.
This actually ended up being my biggest surprise thus far… Here in California, we know that discounted Disney tickets= scam. So naturally I went right to the Walt Disneyworld website to book my tickets. I wanted park hopper tickets, so plugged in my dates. The cost for both of us for 3 days would be $811. I held off because I wasn’t quite ready to get the tickets yet. But I knew I had to get them 31 days in advance, because at the 30 day mark you could book 3 Fast Passes and this is a major step in ensuring an efficient experience!! I was reading and researching every day about all kinds of things, and I came across a site called Undercover Tourist that claimed to have discount tickets. Huh. So I plugged in my dates. $785!! That was a savings of $26- my snack budget for 1:24pm-2:06pm on Monday! Could this be right? Was there some catch? Most importantly, with these tickets could I access the 30 day advance Fast Pass +? Tons of research answered these questions as Yes, No, and Yes! I bought them, linked them to our My Disney app (yes, there’s an app for that), and held my breath until Fast Pass day.

6. Researching what are the “can’t miss” rides.
I’m a spreadsheeter. It’s what I do. So I knew I needed a complete and total list of everything we HAD to do while we were there. And by everything, I mean rides. We aren’t big show people (I do have a couple planned) or parade people or meet the character people. If we stumble upon any of those things as we’re quickly and efficiently moving from ride to ride and we have time, we’ll stop for a bit. Otherwise, it’s a nope. So here’s the game plan list I came up with:

MAGIC KINGDOM EPCOT ANIMAL KINGDOM
HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS
Jungle Cruise Frozen Avatar Flight Tower of Terror
Pirates Test Track Everest Toy Story Mania
Winnie the Pooh Soaring Kilamanjaro Safari Slinky Dog Dash
Philharmagic Show Spaceship Earth Tough to be a Bug
Rock N Roller Coaster
Peter Pan Gran Fiesta Tour Navi River Star Tours
Seven Dwarfs Train Journey Into Imagination Dinosaur Smuggler’s Run
Little Mermaid Living with the Land Kali River
Big Thunder Mountain Mission Space
Splash Mountain The Seas
Hall of Presidents Show
Haunted Mansion
Buzz Lightyear
Space Mountain
Speedway


Please note: There is no “It’s A Small World” on that list. I hate that insipid ride.


7. Getting Fast Passes.
This is serious the most difficult and stressful part of planning the trip!! First of all, Fast Pass + opens up at 7am EST 30 days before you arrive (if you’re staying in a Disney resort, 60 days). And you have to be ON. IT. That means a 3:50am wake up call to be ready at 4am PST. I literally woke up at 3:49am- 1 minute before my alarm. That’s how in tune I am with this Fast Pass thing! It was like Christmas freaking morning…clicking the link, waiting for the Fast Passes to appear. I knew that top priority was Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. How do I know this? Because I know the average wait times for the past 30 days and you want to book the stuff that sucks up your time if you have to wait in line!! Clock flipped to 4am, I clicked the link again, and boom…I was in!! Fast Passes galore! I scrolled down, frantically searching for Seven Dwarfs. It was at the very bottom. None available. For any time all day. Ugh- those damn resort people with their fancy magical rooms, home equity loans, and 60 days fast pass access!!! So I grabbed one for Big Thunder Mountain at 8:40, one for Space Mountain at 11:45, and one for Peter Pan at 2:15. I was under some delusion that you could get fast passes for all of your days once you reached 30 days for your first day. Wrongo. That means 2 more days of 3:50am wakeup calls…

So it’s day 1 and I’m sitting here with my first 3 fast passes, and I’m second guessing ALL OF THEM. What do I do in this situation? Go to facebook groups!!! There are 2 that I belong to- Walt Disney World Made Easy for Everyone and Walt Disney World Tips and Tricks. I was doubting myself- had I chosen correctly? Was my entire trip doomed because of some unknowingly irrational decision I made at 4am? Some people warned me about zig-zagging all over the park, some people said my last pass was too late in the day because apparently you can’t get a new pass until you’ve used all 3 of these!! EEEK!! And some said I was just fine, and to wait and change them as I needed to. Wait?? You mean to tell me I’m not locked into the decision for eternity? I can change these things!! Little cartoon birds started chirping, and my OCD went into overdrive. I proceeded to spend the remainder of the morning refreshing my pass page and managed to get Space Mountain bumped up to 9:45. The best I could do with Peter Pan was move it up 15 minutes to 2pm. But now, I have options. Options and time! And who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will open up!

Day 2, up at 3:50am to score my Epcot Fast Passes. This is a different system than for Magic Kingdom. There are Tier 1 and Tier 2 rides. Tier 1’s are the “must dos”- Frozen, Soarin’, and Test Track. And the kicker is that you can only have ONE of those as your three, and the other two have to be Tier 2.  Popped open the fast pass system at 4am on the dot and got exactly what I wanted! Mission Space at 11, Spaceship Earth at 12, and Frozen at 1:30. The plan is to RUN for Soarin’ at rope drop (for you Disney newbies, that’s the second the park opens!). After that, RUN for Test Track. Then those two Tier 1’s are out of the way, and the last one has the fast pass. The rest of the park should be a breeze. It’s not like Magic Kingdom where there are a ton of rides.

Day 3, up at 3:50am to score my last advance Fast Passes. Our final day at Disney will be 1/2 day at Animal Kingdom and 1/2 day at Hollywood Studios. Interestingly enough, the most popular ride in all four of the parks is in Animal Kingdom! It’s the Avatar Flight of Passage ride, and has average wait times for the last 30 days of over TWO hours!! Eek! However, this is also the most sought after Fast Pass, so much like Seven Dwarfs at Magic Kingdom, most likely every single fast pass has already been reserved by resort guests who get 60 days to reserve their passes. Like Epcot, Animal Kingdom uses the Tier system, and the Avatar Flight ride and the Na’vi River ride are the tier 1s. Hopefully if I don’t get Avatar, I can grab Na’vi. So, what’s my 4am verdict? Forget about Flight of Passage- those Fast Passes were gone 60 days ago. I got Na’vi River for 8:40am, Kali River Rapids for 10am, and Kilamanjaro Safari for 11:50am.

The chances that I spent more time stressing over fast passes than I ever will standing in line for anything without a fast pass is highly probable….

Spoiler Alert: In the end, this whole fast pass thing was changed COMPLETELY once we got to the parks. As in you wouldn’t even recognize them from the originals (except for Magic Kingdom, and it had changes as well). See upcoming “in park” blogs for how that all turned out…

8. And last, but certainly not least….WARDROBE!!!
I am a girl who loves a theme and loves to dress up. Halloween and Mardi Gras are my high holidays. Enough said. And there is no way in hell I’d go to Disney without properly themed attire for each day. And there is no way in hell I’d go to Disney with a man who didn’t have properly themed attire as well! Thus began the massive internet search for complementary outfits! It literally took a full 2+ weeks to gather the options and narrow them down. It’s that serious. We finally decided on our 3 outfits, that we’ll debut with photos on the trip journals. But the theme for each outfit is Haunted Mansion, Alice in Wonderland, and Jack Skellington. God, we’re freaking adorable!! 😃 Because these are clothes we can wear normally (yes, we’re those people), they won’t count toward the budget.

With all 8 of our major “to do” items checked off, it was time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the next couple of weeks until we leave! Oh…..if we were only that simple…..

Click here to read the MAJOR life changing event that changed our plans!

ITEMCOST
TOTAL$1499
Roundtrip Tickets LAX to MCO for Two$364
AirBNB 4 nights$265
Rental Car 4 days$85
Parkhopper Tickets for 3 days$785

 

 

 

 

 

Day 1: Flying by the Seat of Our Pantalones

Day 1: Flying by the Seat of Our Pantalones

So how the heck did we wind up in El Salvador? Well, I love me some Central America. I’ve been to Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Brian and I had originally wanted to go to Nicaragua, because Brian works with a guy from there who says it’s safe, cheap, and beautiful. But when we were booking his flight from Los Angeles to Managua, and mine from Medellin to Managua, the cheapest options both connected through San Salvador. We’re so limited on time, and El Salvador is so much smaller than Nicaragua, we decided to just make that our destination. We felt confident that we could easily cover most of the country in a week with a car. Not so in Nicaragua. Logic=Logistics.

I’m starting this blog with this disclaimer. Brian planned this entire trip. I was too busy with work to even look at it too much. I had a few things I wanted to do, told him those, then left it to him to get the car and rooms. Seriously, I am sitting in this hotel room waiting on him to arrive, and have no idea what is on the agenda for tomorrow other than “pick up rental car”! We’ll see if we’re still together by the end of this trip! 😉

I woke up in Medellin about 6am. Showered, packed, ate the last of my ham and cheese sandwiches, and left a tip for the kind cleaning lady who moved my clothes from the window to the dry rack. John picked me up at 7am. We drove through relatively quiet streets, as most people are off for Semana Santa. He is just such a NICE guy. Seriously. I told him I’d put in a good word for him over at TripAdvisor. He is seriously a god send to anyone who doesn’t speak much (or any) Spanish and who wants to get out of town for a day or so. Check in was a breeze, as I had my boarding pass on my phone and wasn’t checking any luggage. Was through security and at my gate in about 15 minutes. I had some time to kill and some pesos to get rid of (the chances that I’m a millionaire from all of the random currency I possess from all over the world that sits in a drawer is fairly high…), so I decided to shop . And damn if I didn’t find the PERFECT thing!! Colombia spelled with a U is Allison’s mega pet peeve. When I saw this shirt, I knew I had to get it in honor of my Medellin hostess!

It was a quick flight to Bogota and super easy to get through immigration. I had a little less than an hour until my flight, so I grabbed a sandwich and a coke (ugh, but my baby is bringing me a DDP (diet dr. pepper)!!). Once on board, empty middle seat. YAY!! I was texting Brian and poor guy was running around like crazy. He had to get up, drop Sophia off at camp, come back to the house to meet the housesitter, then go to work and get everyone lined out, then catch his flight. I could sense the “fluster” in his texts. I reassured him that soon we would be having amazing adventures together, so take a deep breath and HURRY UP AND GET THERE!! 🙂

I napped for about an hour of the two and a half hour flight. Much needed. Played my favorite airplane game, Bejeweled, the rest of the time. Soon we were preparing for landing. We got lower and lower and lower and then higher and higher and higher and did kind of a fast turn that made me a little queasy. An announcement said that there was some difficulty with landing so we had to reapproach. Seriously? After the technical difficulties on the plane from Bogota to Medellin, now this? I’m starting to think it would be safer for me to walk home next week… Anyway, it took us an extra 20 minutes to get repositioned for take 2. We made it (otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this!). Not gonna lie- I was a little nervous about that one…

Got off the plane and stepped into your typical fairly non-descript Central American airport. My plan was to just wait for Brian to arrive- he was sitting in his plane getting ready to take off while I was getting off my flight. I figured I could blog and hang out. But when I sat down, no wi fi. Ugh. Since the chances of me surviving for 5 hours without wifi are less than me surviving a failed runway approach, I told him I’d go to the hotel and he could meet me there, or I could come get him. He said he’d meet me there. I went through immigration and paid an unexpected $10 fee for a US entry visa (told you I hadn’t done any research!). Was on the sidewalk within minutes with people yelling “Taxi! Taxi!” at me. I was standing there texting Brian, when a woman approached me, said she was from a transport service, and could take me to my hotel- Hotel Rancho Argueta. I asked how much. $25. She’s gotta be out of her DAMN mind. Look, lady, I didn’t just fall off the turnip plane (those of you from the south will get that, those of you not from the south- the general translation is “I ain’t no idiot!”) I knew the hotel was super close- we booked the closest one because Brian was getting in so late (and it was cheap, $35 a night, which is always a major consideration!). I told her that was too expensive and no thanks. She smiled, walked off slowly, and looked back- like she thought I was going to change my mind as soon as she walked away. I guarantee she saw a white woman alone, knew she was one of the few people on that sidewalk that spoke perfect English, and could probably play on my “newbieness” to extort (yes, $25 is EXTORTION!) that kind of money from me. Next guy walks up. No English. So I used my broken Spanish to tell him where I was going and ask how much. He said $10. That’s more like it- still pricey, but doable. I got in the van with him and we were literally at the hotel before Brian’s plane took off!!

Check in was easy. Between their English and my Spanish I explained that my boyfriend was coming at 7 and I needed to pick him up (after my experience on the sidewalk and knowing that my Spanish is collegiate level compared to his, and knowing he wouldn’t have wifi to contact me, AND it would be dark, I figured it was better for me to get him than leave him alone to fend for himself! #helicoptergirlfriend). The guy said the airport shuttle is $6. Perfect. I then didn’t feel so bad about paying $10 earlier. The room is tiny, no windows (probably because it’s the cheapy $35 room), but it’s clean, quiet, and has excellent ac! Which is important with there being no windows. This ain’t Medellin with 75 degrees and hardly any humidity…I knew I was in Central America as soon as I stepped off the plane! 🙂 I then proceeded to spend the next few hours catching up on blogging. I have a ton of work to do, but the internet was just too slow for me to be able to do it. 🙁 Oh! And there was a menu on the desk for the restaurant downstairs. When I read it, I started seriously questioning Mr. Hummel’s reasoning for booking this hotel!! He has not asked the blessing of my tax attorney and accountant yet, nor has he gotten down on one tentacle to ask (inside joke about an octopus ring he gave me at a castle in France)!!

Um, I didn’t come here to honeymoon…

Soon it was time to head to the airport to get Brian. I went downstairs, and met my driver, Enrique. PERFECT English!! And oh my goodness, just such a genuinely nice man! We talked about El Salvador, I asked if it was safe and he said yes and the people are very friendly. Also that they really want more tourists here and for me to please write something about the hotel. I will! I stood outside of the airport doors with a huge group of El Salvadorians holding balloons, signs, flowers, and video cameras the size news stations use!! I felt rather inadequate and woefully underprepared for the arrival of my loved one…Soon he was out of the doors! I was so excited to see him, and I really did refrain from making the first question “Did you bring the DDP??”. I think sometimes he feels like I only meet him in other countries so I can have him haul Diet Dr. Peppers across multiple time zones to feed my addiction!! BTW, he brought 5 of them. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 We hopped in Enrique’s truck and made our way back to the hotel. Went to the restaurant for a nice little dinner with the most lovely waitress! She didn’t speak much English at all, but really wanted to, and was full of giggles! She said “chicken” when she gave Brian his chicken and giggled. I spoke to her a bit in Spanish. She really was just so wonderful! When she brought the check, it was $15.25 total. She pointed at it and I could tell she wanted to know it in English. I told her “Fifteen (she said fifteen), twenty-five (she said twenty five)”. Then we put it all together “Fifteen twenty five”. I could tell she was so pleased with herself! She went over to the front desk to give the guy our credit card, and I heard her happily say to him “Fifteen twenty five!”. Made me smile so hard. 🙂 All in all, a wonderful introduction to El Salvador!

Our hotel is like 2 miles from the airport. And they rent cars! Wish we had known that when we booked the room. 🙁

Lobby and restaurant. They’re doing a ton of renovations right now, so it’s going to be super cute when they’re finished!

The courtyard

Day 2: Regreso! Soy Vieja! Muerto! (AKA: Santa Ana Volcano)

Day 2: Regreso! Soy Vieja! Muerto! (AKA: Santa Ana Volcano)

 

IMPORTANT TIP: Santa Ana Volcano: There are only 3 trips a day! At 9, 10, and 11, so get there early! I recommend the 10 o’clock tour at the latest so you aren’t rushed down so fast. Park in El Tibet. Walk down the road you just came up until you see the little parking lot off the side of the road on your left. Take that. If there are masses of people, follow them. There is a hiking trail just past the parking lot on your left. Take that up to the park entrance where you will pay $3 per person. Do NOT drive to the top of the road, or it will cost you an extra $9 and 45 minutes of hiking!

Woke up early (because like I always say, that’s the best time to start an adventure!), got our things together, and headed downstairs to get a ride to the airport to pick up our car. I sooooooo wish we would have known that the hotel rents cars, because the cars there were cheaper than the one we rented through Budget, and it would have saved us airport shuttle money ($12 whole dollars round trip, but still…). And guess who was STILL downstairs? ENRIQUE! We got in the car and I asked him where he learned such perfect English. He said he lived in California when he was younger. I asked where. He said Van Nuys. I said, “WE ARE FROM RESEDA!!!!!!!”. He almost died from shock!! In Los Angeles, which is massively spread out, Reseda and Van Nuys border each other!! He was just in disbelief and said it’s such a small world. That was such a fun connection! He asked me about checking in yesterday with the front desk guy, and how his English was. I said it was good enough to communicate. He said they were trying to get the staff up to speed on English, hoping for more tourists. Love it. We said our goodbyes to Enrique (our neighbor!), and picked up our car. Check in with Budget was super easy, and we were blown away that we literally got a BRAND NEW Hyundai SUV with just a little over 200km on it! WOW! I’m used to dented, scratched up vehicles in Central America. Plus, the desk lady AND the guy who took us out to the car both spoke English! Pulled out of the airport and found our way to a little gas station to grab some water and snacks (we didn’t eat breakfast. Please remember this fact for future reference). And what to my wondering eyes did appear??? A familiar maroon can in the cooler…could it be??? YES IT WAS!! DR. PEPPER!!!!!!!!!!! Brian picked out a bag of chips that has become my new favorite chip ever (well, tied with Nacho Cheese Doritos)-

We had grand plans for the day! To visit Mayan ruins! First up, Joya de Ceren, then off to two other Mayan ruin sites. Hitting the open road in our fancy schmancy brand new car….WOO-HOO!! Google maps led the way through San Salvador to Joya de Ceren which was a little over an hour away. We pulled up to the gates exactly at 9am when the website said it opened, and were met with….locked gates. There was no sign of life whatsoever inside. I immediately knew that this was Jesus’ fault. It’s holy week here (Semana Santa), and this was Thursday before Good Friday. Another car pulled up with people who spoke English and Spanish. They talked to a guy across the street who said they were closed until Saturday. Ok, no worries, we’ll just drive over to the next set of ruins that was really close by. And guess what? CERRADO! Obviously all government run sites were going to be closed, so there was no sense in driving over to the other one. Now what? Now do what we do so well, and why we are the best travel partners EVER…completely change plans midstream seamlessly with no stress! Looked on google maps to figure out where we were and what was around, and saw the volanco park we had in our plans to do later in the week and decided to head over there. Took about an hour, during which we drove along a BEAUTIFUL lake- Lake Coatepeque, which is a huge volcanic crater lake.

I will say, the roads in El Salvador are quite good and very well marked- nothing like what I expected. Soon we saw the turnoff to Cerro Verde National Park, where we would have lunch then go on a hike. Before we got there though, Brian had to make a quick stop. 😉

Yes, dear. I TOLD you this was going in the blog. NEVER trust the evil girlfriend with the camera!!!

Look, we honestly had NO IDEA what we were doing exactly, and I didn’t have enough of a signal for internet data to do any on-the-fly research. We pulled into a little area called El Tibet. There were a zillion people all walking together in a group headed somewhere. There were signs for some of the volcanoes (there’s more than one here, but we knew from prior research that Santa Ana was the easiest one to hike), but not Santa Ana. There were a ton of roadside vendors with fruit and water. No restaurant. A policeish guy walks over to us and I asked if he spoke English. He did!! What the what the?? I can’t believe how so many people here speak English! I really wasn’t expecting that, knowing that El Salvador isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourism. He said that we could park here and then he pointed up the road and said we could walk up there to do the Santa Ana tour. I asked if it was a fairly flat trail or very steep. He said a little up and down- holding his hand flat, and then at a slight angle, and then flat again. Ok, doable! He walked off and Brian and I still weren’t sure exactly what to do. So we got out and bought a piece of pineapple and a couple of pieces of melon, since there was no real food anywhere to be found. We also bought a couple of extra waters. There were still masses of people walking down the road. I told Brian that if we had to walk up the road, why didn’t we just DRIVE up the road? So we got in and headed up. A mile or so in there was a gate. $3 per person and $1 for the car. (This would become a recurring theme!). Paid, parked, and saw a huge group of people standing there waiting to go on a guided hike- you have to have a guide to hike here. I asked a man who looked rather official was this the groupo para Santa Ana? No, and he pointed back to the guard shack. Went over there, and fortunately the guy spoke broken English. He explained that we had to walk all the way to the top of the road and the tour was starting at 11. It was like 10:45! He said we had to pay $3 per person. We explained that we had already paid when we came in. No, ANOTHER $3 per person, and $1 each for a guide. And hurry or we were going to miss the last tour of the day! Up we went. Nothing was marked, it was super confusing, I asked a couple of people what to do and where to go, there was a restaurant- but no time…. Finally we found where the tour started. There was a long line of people and we fell into place. We each paid $1 to the people who were taking us in, who reminded us in Spanish that we had to pay another $3, but we couldn’t figure out where that was going to happen. Whatever, we headed down the trail with the masses, in last place so I could at least get some decent pictures without tons of people! And oh, by the way, out of all of these masses of people, NO white people. Bonus score! 🙂

We went down, down, down, down, and DOWN. Being a physics teacher, I know that what goes down must come up. And oh, by the way, did I mention that this was going to be a FOUR HOUR HIKE?? And that said 4 hour hike was going to be done on basically some chips we ate on the way to the volcano and a piece of a piece of fruit we got on the side of the road. I knew I wasn’t about to be coming back up this, and started getting REALLY nervous. We were completely unprepared for this hike, and most importantly I wasn’t mentally prepared!! After about half an hour we popped out on to a road- in El Tibet! The same damn place we had parked the car earlier!! I was overcome by two emotions. One, frustration. We didn’t have to spend that extra $9 on the parking and guide!!!!!! GRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Another…elation! Brian could go back and get the car when we were done and I wouldn’t have to climb back up that hill from hell! But at that point, as we were walking down the road in a mass of people, I realized that was selfish. I wanted to hitchhike back up the road!! Now THAT would make a good blog entry! I settled it in my mind, did the thing I do where I start formulating what to say in Spanish to make it happen, and was kind of excited at the prospect! We went up another hill that wasn’t as horrible as the first. It ended in a little area with snacks, bathrooms (very, VERY loose term. #gag), and a place to pay $3 per person to enter the park.

Brian standing in line while I stocked up on the only protein there was- Peanut M&Ms, which I learned are M&Ms Amarillo (yellow).

The masses started heading up another hill, and we followed. Back of the pack again. We came upon what I refer to as a “No Mary Zone”- crazy tower thing with a ladder to access each level. In other words, a death trap. Brian went up and got some nice shots of the valley below. I talked to the guides in Spanish and asked them if there were monkeys here. Nope. Pizotes.

Off we went down the trail. It was a bit of a climb to this point, but now it was nice and flat. YES! I can do flat for DAYS! Also, it was a shaded trail through the forest, which was key because, again, we weren’t prepared for this and had no sunscreen.

Shady and flat. Just the way I like it!

No sunscreen, no food, no mental preparation. We’re happily walking along, I’m talking to the guide in my broken Spanish, and all is good. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until we hit an area where the trees disappeared and the trail got rocky and steep. Um, did I mention no physical fitness on my part? I have literally been on a couch working, basically since last summer in Malaysia. I didn’t really hike in South Africa. The only thing I’ve done recently was that climb up El Pinon last week in Colombia that was fine while it was happening, but wrecked me for about 3 days after! I didn’t want to be wrecked first thing out of the gate in El Salvador! My other situation is my knees, who are not real keen on climbing these days… As I looked up, WAY up, and saw a winding trail of masses like ants in a solid line far above me, I started to get nervous. Nervous about not having any food to fuel this monster hike. Nervous about getting mega sunburned and being miserable the rest of the trip (luckily though, there was pretty good cloud cover). Nervous about my knees. Nervous about my fitness level. Nervous about heights. Nervous about falling, because we saw multiple people slip and eat it that were coming down the steep parts. And when I get nervous, I get complainy. So I started voicing my concerns about all of these things- multiple times. Poor Brian, he’s just so steadfast and encouraging and patient… Honestly though, I didn’t think I could make it to the top.

Um, I did NOT sign up for this!

See all the people??

No, at the top where all those people are is STILL not the real top (even though Brian told me it was the top on about 3 different occasions).

The climb was long. It was steep. It was hard in places. It was real. The constant flow of people coming down the same narrow, steep, difficult trail we were trying to go up didn’t make things any easier. Cries of “Regreso!” and “Regrasamos!” (I’m going back and We’re going back!) were heard multiple times. I added my own cry to the mix. Muerto! Soy viaja! And I wasn’t kidding. Then, my right knee decided to start discussing the matter with me about ¾ of the way up (and about 2 hours in to what was supposed to be a 4 hour roundtrip and we still couldn’t even see the real top of this thing). The clouds were pouring in. I asked a woman who was coming down if she could even see the lake in the crater of this volcano because of all the clouds. She said yes (I was kind of hoping for a no and a good excuse to regreso!). People, I am not joking when I tell you we literally saw someone sitting on the side of the trail crying. I asked in Spanish if they needed water, no, just tired. I felt their pain. I trudged on, and on, and on. Every time I thought we could see the peak and we reached that area, there was just another steady line of people winding up and up. We bonded in Spanish with a woman and guy who had just about had it as well and were trying to make it. We were at the tail end of this last group. Finally, desert like vegetation of yuccas and straggly grass disappeared as the landscape became more gray and stark. More and more lava rocks were everywhere. We were close. And then….THE TOP!! The real top this time!! Brian was ahead of me. I shouted to him was the view of the lake worth it (by god it better be or I was going to throw myself into the cauldron as a sacrifice!). He said yes. I clambered up behind him and wow. Just wow. Like take your breath away wow. Yes, indeed, it was worth it. Three hours of near death and almost constant despair were worth it.

Finally at the top!

Raise your hand if you just climbed the highest volcano in El Salvador on some chips, a couple bites of fruit, and some M&Ms!

So what’s the dealio with this volcano and lake? Well, upon research AFTER the fact, this is the highest volcano in El Salvador- 7,605 ft!! Holy Christos! The last eruption was 2005, when the volcano killed a couple of people and hurled rocks the size of CARS about a mile away!! The indigenous name is Ilamatepec. I couldn’t find any good information on the lake itself, except for an abstract from a scientific paper that stated the lake is actually a lot cooler than what you would expect- about 68 degrees F!! But that during times of increased volcanic activity, temperatures were recorded at 86. Honestly though, not bad for a lake inside of a volcano! Oh, and it’s shallower than I thought- about 90 feet. Statistics aside, it’s beautiful, and the camera really couldn’t pick up the gorgeous muted jade/blue tones.

I shit thee not, we hadn’t been up there 3 minutes before we hear whistles blowing. What the…it was the guides saying it was time to go. Everyone off the volcano. I’m sorry, but FUCK YOU. I didn’t trudge 3 hours up here to spend 3 minutes and turn right back around. And anyway, I didn’t take whistle in high school, so no comprendo! We walked around a bit with whistles blowing and snapped shots. The whistles started getting more fervent, so we headed down after the masses, among the last in the line again.

Heading back down…

Um, see that little villagy area WAAAAAAAY down there? That was our general location. Is it too late to just sacrifice myself to the volcano and call it a day??

Up, up, up and now turned into down, down, down- my knee’s least favorite pasttime. And the discussion it had started on the way up now turned into a full blown argument, that by the time we got near the bottom was turning into a domestic violence issue and a request for a restraining order. The young man in front of me would help me down the steeper steps, while Brian was on the other side. Some people had ended up behind us somehow, and we let them pass while I rested me knee, so I lost the nice young man. We finally got back to the forest and the clouds were thick. It was literally like walking through some kind of haunted fairy tale forest, except it was my knee that was the villian. I would have preferred a witch or wolf… We were now at the very back with the rear guides, and they were trying to help me hobble down the best they could. I felt like a 90 year old. Embarrassed, but there was literally nothing I could do. It just wouldn’t cooperate. Two hours, yes TWO hours of this making it a FIVE hour hike total with no decent food, and we came out to the little park entrance area again. Praise be! But there was still a bit to go. I started discussing how we were going to get back to the car- the park was basically shutting down and we didn’t think anyone would be driving up to the top to hitchhike with. Brian was going to just walk up and get the car while I waited if that was the case. We got to the bottom, and damn if the guide didn’t put us in a truck!!! $1 per person!! And me, being an invalid, got to ride in the cab with the driver instead of stand up packed like sardines in the back (which we’ve determined is an official mode of transportation in El Salvador!). That was THE best $1 I have ever spent in my life. Hands down, no question. Oh my god, I was so relieved. Because I really didn’t want to wait at the bottom by myself.

The eerie, haunted looking forest…

Soon, we were back at the car and heading back down the road toward San Salvador. I was tired. I was cranky. My knee hurt. I was hungry. In other words, waaaaaaaaaaaa!!!! We wanted to get back to our AirBNB and check in before dark. Put it in google maps and found it easily. Super nice little modern condo with free secured parking! Dropped our bags and it was time to find FOOD!! It was after 6pm by this time!!! We drove around the neighborhood a bit and couldn’t find anything, so we pulled into a gas station and asked a guy on a motorcycle. He pointed and told us “Metro Center” and indicated that there were a lot of restaurants there. We found it, and went into the first restaurant we saw- Pueblo Vieja. The waiter was so happy to practice his English with us, and even brought over another waiter to help him with his English as well. The food was awesome, and our waiter even took our picture. 🙂 At the end, he wanted me to tell him the proper way to ask a customer in English if they were finished with their meal. Guys, El Salvadoreans really, REALLY want English speaking tourists here, and they are trying very hard. It’s so heartwarming to see!

Taken with my craptastic phone camera.

Next up, so we would NEVER be stuck without food again, was a trip to the grocery store that was in the same center. It was dark out by now, and we felt perfectly safe walking around. Of course, there are armed guards EVERYWHERE in El Salvador. Like seriously. Everywhere. Went into Super Selectos- an excellent, very well organized store! One thing I will say…El Salvador ain’t cheap. They use the US dollar as their currency so are directly tied to our economy and it shows. We grabbed some eggs to boil, some more of our favorite chips, and some fruit. And, there it was again, on the shelf…DR. PEPPER!! Oh, El Salvador…you surprise me in so many ways!! Headed back to the condo and crashed. Our first full day here was certainly that…full!

Day 3: Santa Semana en Sonsonate

Day 3: Santa Semana en Sonsonate

Know how I knew this morning was going to be a Good Friday? Because I woke up and my knee wasn’t incapacitated as I had suspected it might be. Plus, Brian had drank a full on glass of WATER at the restaurant last night, and I had a drink with ice. Neither of us were clutching our guts and declaring the bathroom a toxic dump site. Woo-hoo! I had been very worried about that…. Those things, and it was literally Good Friday. In Latin America, it’s called Semana Santa (Saint’s Week), and it is a BIG DEAL. Like THE high holiday. I knew from being in Colombia that there were all kinds of processions and things, and really wanted to experience that! Searched the internet high and low for information and really couldn’t figure out where or when anything was. The waiter at the restaurant the night before said there are these things called alfombras (carpets) that are made in the streets for the processions to walk over, and that they are very popular. We ate some boiled eggs and headed out on foot, with plans to just walk the 3 miles to the main cathedral in town: La Catedral Metropolitana del Divino Salvador del Mundo. We figured there HAD to be something going on there. First stop, a little farmacia that was open near the house. We walked in and kind of wandered around looking for sunscreen. Lo and behold, and man walks up to us out of the blue and introduces himself in perfect English, asking what we needed. He was just a customer there, named Charlie, and he worked in a call center so he knew English. He asked the lady at the counter if there was any sunscreen. No. 🙁 He then asked us what our plans were. We told him, and he said San Salvador is dead (no pun intended, Jesus) because everyone leaves the city to go to the smaller towns or the beach. We asked him for suggestions, and he wasn’t really sure, so the guy calls his brother to ask!! Seriously, the people here are SO friendly and SO lovely!! Nicest I’ve encountered anywhere, really. The brother says Sonsonate is where it’s happening. That advice, coupled with the fact that my knee was already complaining slightly and we hadn’t even walked 2 blocks, made us decide to go back, get the car, and head to Sonsonate! We joked that some people can turn on a dime. We turn on the head of a pin. 🙂

There’s a thing about El Salvador. Every place is 1 hour and 21 minutes away, no matter where you’re going! Small country… We drove along the roads, which I must say that by Central American standards are quite good. Not a ton of pot holes, hardly any topas (speed bumps), and well marked. Along the way we saw very typical El Salvadorean things. People JAM PACKED into trucks, vans, buses, whatever. John Fredy (our driver in Medellin), had a joke with Allison. He could get a vehicle to give her and her friends a tour that would fit 8 Americans or 15 Colombians. Here, that joke would be revised to “or 23 El Salvordoreans”. Another thing we see a lot are sticks. Sticks piled into trucks. People gathering sticks. People carrying sticks. Sticks piled in yards. We’re pretty sure they’re for firewood (for cooking, not heat!). And babies. Babies doing all kinds of things babies in the US are definitely not allowed to do. Babies standing in buckets of water. Babies riding on a motorcycle down the highway with no protection, just kinda stuffed in between mom and dad. Babies crawling from the shoulder out on to the highway (no lie!!) from a roadside vendor. Naked babies just hanging out on the hood of a car. The only plastic they don’t have here is bubble wrap for babies. It’s natural selection at its finest! And speaking of plastic, I hate to say it, but damn this country is a mess. There is trash EVERYWHERE. We have seen so many people just throw stuff out of their car windows. It’s a damn shame. 🙁

Baby in a bucket. I just missed the shot of him pouring that little bucket full of water over his head. In the US, we call this “BABY DROWNING HAZARD!!!!!!”, then promptly wrap the child in bubble wrap.

As we drove, we could see the volcanoes in the distance. It’s the tail end of dry season here, so everything is brown.

We arrived at Sonsonate. And had NO CLUE where to go (running theme). The gps had taken us to some neighborhood with some dirt roads. We knew that wasn’t right. I zoomed in on the map, saw a green square, and knew that where there is a park, there is a church! We headed for it and there it was! The place was packed, but we parked within a block of it because even though there were hundreds of people, only a few cars were needed to get them here! 🙂 Purple was the colore de la dia!! There were lots of people dressed in purple robe type things- children, men, women. I’m guessing it signifies the royal color purple- the color of kings- for Jesus. The fountains even had purple water. One had red, I assume to symbolize the blood of Jesus.

This kid smiled so much after he realized I snapped his pic. 🙂

Super creepy clown for blowing up helium balloons…

Oh, speaking of bloodshed, I had read on a blog about Sonsonate that it was one of the most dangerous areas of El Salvador. They specifically mentioned to cover up any tattoos to avoid attracting the attention of gang members. That meant that I made Brian basically dress in a burka for the day…the 95 degree day. Let me quell any fears- Sonsonate, at least during Semana Santa is completely safe. I can not tell you how many times I said “These people are just so WONDERFUL” after every encounter. I’m used to people I’m paying to be nice to me. These people are just geniunely nice because they are. So helpful, so friendly, so accommodating. Anyway, I digress to say this. Brian could have worn shorts and a shorter sleeve shirt. 🙂

A lot of people were lining up in front of a big decorated building. When in El Salvador….so we lined up too. We were kind of an anomaly. And by that, I mean the ONLY white people. Kids especially would look at us so curiously! Some followed us around! We stood there waiting for we had no idea what to happen. We could hear drums in the distance, and soon, we saw the procession arriving! Jesus arrived from one side of the plaza, two women figures and an angel from the other side. In the middle was a stage and they were very loudly acting out the trial of Jesus.

News reporter, in what I assume is traditional Santa Semana attire. 😉

The trial of Jesus was dragging on about as long as OJ’s trial, so I was ready to cut out. I wanted to find those alfombras! The people running the bathroom service (which for a crowd this large was very nice!) directed us in Spanish to where they were. We headed that way. As we walked along the streets, there were women selling all kinds of fruits and vegetables. In this area, the women all had these beautiful aprons on. I stopped on one side of the road and heard a mass of giggling behind me. There was a woman in a bright pink shirt laughing about me taking those women’s picture, and calling to them across the street basically saying “Ha, ha, you got your picture taken!”. I smiled at her and kept walking. The guy at a cart about 20 feet away told me in Spanish, with a mischeivous gleam in his eye, to go back and take her picture. I started walking back, she saw me, and started laughing her head off. I gave her puppy dog eyes, put my hands together in a pleading way and playfully said “Una fotographia, por favor…por favor???” She giggled and ran. It was on! I chased after her! Brian said I looked like the papparazzi! I knew it was all just a fun game and I wasn’t offending her or anything. She was laughing so hard, I was trying to snap a picture. I finally got one and walked over to show her. She about died laughing!!! It was SO MUCH FUN! I’m telling you (again) these people are WONDEFUL!!!

Pink shirt….my new bestie!

We turned a block and saw a bunch of alfombras that had already been walked over by the previous processions of the day. I think there was one early in the morning, and then that noon one that we had seen. But I knew the main one was this afternoon at 4 (the bathroom guy told me).

Around another corner, we saw them! Well, the beginnings of them. Salt was being spread out into some big wooden frames. It looked like they had a lot of work ahead of them! We continued walking and saw people preparing these huge stencils of palm trees, I assumed to put into the salted frames. They were no where near ready (it was about 12:30), so we decided to go back to the square and explore the church.

We wandered around the very crowded church for a bit, then decided to get some food. Every restaurant was closed, so we found a street vendor that advertised a chicken lunch with a coke for $2.50. Now HERE were some decent prices finally!! Brian got the chicken with rice, avocado, and tortillas (we are NOT fans of the tortillas in El Salvador- they’re too thick and don’t have much flavor). The chicken and rice were FANTASTIC!! I got bean and cheese pupusas which were really good as well. We also ordered some deep fried yucca things that had kind of a sweet sauce with them- almost dessert like- that were really good. The people at the food stand were bending over backwards for us. Got us seated at a table under their canopy. Made sure we had everything we wanted. Cleaned up the mega mess Brian made with the sauce all over the nice table cloth (I can’t take him anywhere!). And when I asked for a knife to cut the chicken with, they didn’t have one and apologized. Like 30 seconds later, a woman appeared with a knife. Again, SUCH LOVELY PEOPLE!!!

During all of this, the mega loud Jesus trial was still going on. We’re two hours in at this point. Soon, we heard the band playing, so we wandered over to the street and the procession was heading our way. Let me tell you about that Jesus thing they were carrying. There were 4 rows of about 8-10 men struggling to keep it held up! Ahead of Jesus were the guys waving the incense burners. Behind all of that was a large band. Behind that, the women and angel figures, all carried by women (much smaller to carry). I was pretty much right in the middle of the street snapping pics of it all!

After the procession passed, we headed back to the street with the alfombras to see what progress had been made. Those palm stencils were to paint on the street! There were guys who were basically mopping in between the lines with oil. Then a team would lay down a palm tree stencil and shake colored sand all over it. There were several teams working on this all the way up the street. And progress was being made on the alfombras! We oooed and ahhhed over them. I asked one guy what time would they be finished. 4pm. Holy crap. I was not going to just sit here for another 2 hours. Time to find a new adventure!

I hit up google maps and found some kind of ecopark thing in the area that was about 20 minutes away. We decided to go check it out. On the way back, we passed by my friend pink shirt again! I shouted “Hola!!” a few times across the street, but she didn’t look up. A guy next to me said something and she looked over and DIED laughing again! I snapped a quick pic and went to show her, then Brian said we should all take a picture together. They agreed. Now THESE are ladies I’d like to hang out with!!

Brian was all worried about giving up our sweet parking space. I told him it was FINE. We headed off to the town of Caluco. Down pavement which gave way to dirt roads. And I never felt safer. The eco park ended up being a bunch of really dirty looking pools that were PACKED with people. The water running through them was river water. We basically hit a dead end and turned around. Found a church and stopped to see if there was any interesting Semana Santa stuff going on. Not much.

Back down the road to head to Sonsonate again. We saw a kid on the side of the road with crabs on a string. I told Brian to turn around!! We pulled up alongside of him and I said I didn’t want crabs, but how about a picture. He agreed, and I snapped this shot. I handed him a dollar for his trouble. 🙂

Brian was completely wrong about parking. We parked practically on top of the alfombras this time! Of course, I heckled him half to death about that. “Oh gee, I’m not sure we can handle walking a whole 30 feet….” He loves me. 🙂 We checked on the progress of the alfombras. It was a little after 3pm and the thing was starting in less than an hour! Progress had been made, but still not quite finished!!

We walked around the streets. Me with my massive “Hello, I’m a tourist with money to burn on a fancy camera” camera swinging from my neck. Never felt safer. A lady asked if I would take a picture of her and her children. Damn thing came out blurry!! I was so pissed. But here they are. The ladies carrying things on their heads were so interesting.

Mayan woman

The best thing to kill time anywhere is to go get ICE CREAM! Which we did. And in that shop was the only whitish looking person we had seen all day (way to ruin it, white lady!). After ice cream, it was about 3:40. I wasn’t interested in seeing another procession, because it takes forever and I wanted to be back before dark. We decided to just accept whatever was finished of the alfombras, and then head out. And here is what we found…

Ummm hmmmm….now what does a unicorn, a werewoman, a fairy, and Jesus all have in common?? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. This area has a strong Mayan presence (which was shown on the alfombra with the parrots and MAYAN TEMPLE). I was so damn proud and pleased with these people! Well played…well played, indeed. Hilarious!!! High five, Sonsonate, for making this day so “magical”!! Love your town, love your people, love your culture!!

Day 4: Mayan Ruins & Roller Coasters

Day 4: Mayan Ruins & Roller Coasters

Today was Saturday- the day the Mayan ruins we tried to visit from Day 2 were supposed to be open. We got up and got ourselves out the door so we could be there right when Joya de Ceren opened at 9am. Turned on our jam- 102.1- and started our 1 hour and 21 minute (because EVERYTHING is that far away!) drive. Let me tell you about 102.1…it’s an 80’s station. And not your typical 80’s station from the US. We heard zero Madonna in hours of driving over days. No, they play the songs you literally have not heard since 1987!! And some of them are crazy mixes of those songs. It’s so trippy! We love it! Perfect road trip accompaniment.

Pulled into Joya de Ceren 3 minutes before 9. First (and only) ones in!! Woo-hoo!! $3 per person (because EVERYTHING in El Salvador is $3 per person and 1 hour and 21 minutes away!!). Now I’ve been to a lot of Mayan ruins in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Probably about 10, including the biggie at Tikal. But Joya de Ceren is very different from all of those ruins. Most ruins are all about the city center, with temples and buildings and such. Joya de Ceren is about the outskirts of these areas that people rarely realize existed. The “suburbs” of the big cities, so to speak. The farming villages that sustained these massive civilizations. We don’t normally see them because they were build out of mud, not rock, so they haven’t lasted the centuries. So why did Joya de Ceren last? Here’s a clue- it’s called the Pompeii of the Americas!! And just like the Roman Pompeii in Italy (which I have had the pleasure of visiting last summer!), Joya de Ceren was buried during a volcanic eruption, and perfectly preserved! People had been living in this area as far back as 1200 BCE (over 3000 years ago!! WOW!). In 590, a nearby volcano erupted and covered the village under about 20 FEET of ash!! Unlike the Romans, who stuck around praying for their gods to make Vesuvius stop acting up, the Mayans high tailed it the heck out of there. No human remains have been found, in fact they left so fast they didn’t take much with them. (Note: See how well action works vs.. “thoughts and prayers”??…we could learn something from these ancient civilizations!!) That means scientists have been able to use the site to learn a lot about everyday Mayan life! So how did they find this place, buried under 20 feet of ash and layers of stuff from 1300+ years on top of that? A bulldozer was doing some excavation and uncovered it in 1976. Since then, over 70 buildings have been found, and about 12 have been fully excavated (including homes, sweat lodges, storage houses, and ceremonial houses). The parts that are open to the public are all under huge sheds- not out in the open like Pompeii. Pompeii was built from stone. Joya de Ceren is built from clay, so it would not withstand the elements very long if exposed. It was declared a UNESCO site in 1993. And the awesome thing is that even though the information was fairly limited (and the museum was closed, from what the sign said permanently 🙁 ), the signage on each site was in Spanish AND English!

They had a model sweat lodge built that you could go into.

It took us probably about 45 minutes to go through Joya de Ceren. Next on our Mayan road trip was San Andres, which was right around the corner, maybe 5 miles away. We drove in and there were a few people milling around. Paid our….wait for it…$3 per person. 🙂 San Andres was a ceremonial center. In fact, it’s still used by the Mayans for ceremonies, which is pretty cool! Again, lots of signage in English, and a really cool museum! The ruins themselves were kinda “eh”. Brian has never been to any, so they were good for him! One really cool thing here is a tunnel that was excavated under one of the pyramids- it’s over 250 feet long! Unfortunately you couldn’t go in. 🙁

Now something REALLY crazy happened when we left San Andres and I got a decent data signal. I’m not going to go into this entire drama, but let me give you a little of the backstory. I found out I was adopted 11 years ago. I found my birthmother immediately through a person called a “search angel” (someone who helps adoptees find their birth family). Met her, drama ensued, she refused to tell me who my birth father is, yadda, yadda, yadda. I was at a dead end. Fast forward a decade when the genetics teacher can now order a DNA test and find potential relatives that way! I took the test 2 months ago. Yesterday morning, I got an email that they were ready to view, and I posted my information on a site. A search angel said she would help, and spent all day yesterday tracking down potential matches and leads and building family trees to narrow down the possibilities. Never in my wildest dreams did I think anything would happen for a few weeks at LEAST. I mean, people get their DNA tested and it can still take months or years to find the right trail, because it is reliant on the right people who are related to you getting tested and building out their family trees! Well, here I am, in the middle of no where El Salvador, and a facebook message pops up from my search angel that she thinks she’s found a potential family member.  Just like the Santa Ana volcano death march, I was NOT mentally prepared for this right now. So my mind is spinning at like 10,000 mph, I’m what iffing and kinda freaking out on the I don’t know how long (probably 1 hour and 21 minute) drive to the next Mayan site. Emotional roller coaster from hell, not enough data to do searches of my own for more information…ugh. Then we get to the town, Tazumal, and google maps is just toying with us. We ended up off on the far side of town somewhere down dirt roads, and had to turn around. This was just google practicing for later…

We finally found it (dead giveway: it’s on the street that is covered in souvenir stalls.) We parked and the guy made it very clear in English that he would be requiring a tip upon our return. I needed food. I needed to sit down. I needed a stiff drink and a bullet. I NEEDED A SCREAMING FAST DATA CONNECTION!! We’re sitting on this street, no white people anywhere (which literally has been the norm this entire trip), and I’m ordering food in Spanish. Nothing is registering. Somewhere between San Andreas and here I went from the “shock” stage to the “anger” stage. I have tears in my eyes, Brian isn’t sure what to do with me, the food kinda sucked. UGH. We finished and went across the street to the ruins. Of course, it’s $3 to get in. We’re out of small bills and Brian (who is in charge of Spanish while I am fighting off a nervous breakdown) hands the guy a $100. He says he can’t change it. OH HELL NO. Brian, in his super cute innocent way, says let’s go find an ATM. Um, the streets are one step up from dirt over here. I’m doubting there’s an ATM on the corner!! I’m over it at this point. The US dollar is the currency, there are DOZENS of people inside the ruins right now and I know damn good and well he has change. I walk back up to the window and blab a bunch of stuff in Spanish that includes the word cambio, probably looking half crazed and ready to lose it at any point. He takes my $100 and gives me $94 back in change. Gracias.

We’re putting our cambio away, and a guy comes running up and hands me something. It’s the guy from the restaurant, handing me my PHONE!!! The only lifeline we have in El Salvador because I’m the only one with T-Mobile and free international data. Without that phone, we couldn’t find our way out of the parking lot!! Oh my god, I thanked him profusely. I NEVER leave my phone anywhere. That was the state of mind I was in… And let me say it yet again, the people here are SO LOVELY!! The best I’ve ever dealt with in all of my travels…

The ruins here at Tazumal were much more impressive than San Andreas. We hiked along the perimeter through a very peaceful and quiet area (which I needed) that was right next to an extremely colorful typical Central American cemetery.

The museum was very nice, but nothing was in English. Not sure why it was in the other 2 places and not here. These are some of the most interesting pieces.

Headed back to the car, made sure we tipped the guy, and looked at google maps trying to figure out what to do next. We could head directly back to San Salvador the way we came. Or….we could take the Ruta de Las Flores and then head toward the beach and come back into San Salvador that way. Anytime we can take a road we haven’t traveled, it’s a good day. So off toward the Ruta de Las Flores we went! The drive was nice, but would have been MUCH nicer if it wasn’t the end of dry season. Everything that should have been lush and green was kinda brown and sparse. Honestly, not much to see that was exciting. But then we saw a sign on the side of the road…my eyes scanned it quickly and just picked up the word “cascadas” which I knew meant waterfall! Let’s do it! We pulled over into a little parking lot across the street, and started walking up a path alongside the road. It was maybe a 5 minute walk to some quite lovely waterfalls with a lot of locals hanging out. We have seen one, that is ONE, possibly white English speaking woman and that was in Sonsonate. #travelingright While I was snapping pictures, a youngish guy came up and started talking to Brian in perfect English. His name is Alex. He went to join his parents in the US when he was 10 and grew up there, graduated high school there, and spent 16 years of his life there. The current immigration policies forced him to come back to El Salvador, a place he hadn’t been since he was a young child. He says he likes it here ok. He lives in his parent’s old house so he doesn’t have to pay rent. A very clean cut, well spoken young man. I felt awful for him.

Our road was taking us through numerous small towns as we wound our way over the mountains and to the beach. There was a dark red line on Google near the beach town of La Libertad. It was Easter Sunday, and we had already been told that EVERYONE goes to the beach. We figured that by the time we got there, the traffic would clear out. And hopefully as we drove this coast road, we’d see some stunning scenery. We were wrong on both counts… Every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the ocean, but for the most part it was obscured by fences, the side of the mountain, or vegetation. The best view was at the “goat turnout”, so named because it was one of the few turnouts we saw to catch a view of the water, and….well….there was a goat! Which of course Brian immediately befriended, even though I’m not so sure the goat was reciprocating the love, as he was trying to head butt Brian!

We kept watching the red line on Google, and it wasn’t getting any better. Soon we hit the traffic. I live in Los Angeles, I know traffic. This was the worst mess I’d ever been in! It literally took us almost 2 hours to go about 5 miles. People were lining the streets trying to sell us all kinds of things- water, some kind of huge bright pink tortilla looking things, mangos that had been cut to look like flowers and covered in something that looked like chocolate, french fries with ketchup and mayonaisse (I would have paid $10 for some plain fries!!). People would speed up and pass you on the shoulder. Or, they would drive in the oncoming lane for as long as they could and then practically kill you to get in front of you to avoid being killed by an oncoming car. It was INSANITY, and how Brian kept it together I will never know. I, of course, am still trying to process the news of maybe finding my family while stifling the urge to ditch the car and walk back to San Salvador to save time. There were police around. We have no idea what their purpose was. When we finally got toward the end of it, this chicken and cross pretty much summed up our experience!

And you’d think that would be the end of our day. No, no it wasn’t. It was dark as we wound our way up toward San Salvador. We really don’t like to be out after dark. Got closer to town and we were starving. We decided to just go to Metro Center, where we ate the night before, and grab something fast at one of the restaurants. Put Metro Center into google, and headed there. Made a right hand turn, saw Pollo Campero on the left, and said “Let’s do it!”. But San Salvador has these huge cement barriers in the median everywhere you go. We couldn’t turn left into Metro Center. No worries, there has to be a U turn in a block or two, right? Wrong. Google maps told us it would be .6 miles before we could make a left turn and get back around. We counted down the tenths of a mile and then the feet so we’d be sure not to miss it in the dark. When we found it, it was barricaded off!! What the hell?! Google maps said, “No worries, you can turn in another half mile!”. Ok…except that turn was not possible either!! We didn’t know what to do, had no idea what part of town we were in, it was dark, we were tired, we wanted food, and it was just a damn mess!! We just kept going, thinking soon there HAD to be a way to turn left. YES! Google maps said soon!! We got ready, got to the turn, and it was blocked off for construction! Traffic was flowing quickly, and before we knew it we were diverted up on to this bridge thing with metal rails. I swear to god it looked exactly like the rails on the sides of a roller coaster as you’re going up the hill. Brian was flying (slow the fuck down is not in his vocabulary), and all of a sudden we almost reached the top and….just like a roller coaster….couldn’t see the other side! It was scary as hell, because you never know if they’re going to throw a barrier or a chicken or something in your path. Made it off of that and at that point, Brian was frazzled. Somehow we finally made it back around, and then missed another turn we needed to make, which took us into a completely different area of town. We didn’t know if we were in a “no gringo” zone or not. But we did see the glowing sign of Pollo Campero!! We pulled in, locked the car, and walked in. I ordered in Spanish, and we sat on the little bench next to the counter waiting for our food. At that point, between the roller coaster of emotions and the roller coaster car ride, I finally lost it. I started giggling, and I don’t even know why. I could NOT stop. I could barely breathe and had tears running down my face. We’re talking about 3 full minutes of this. Of course, being the only gringos in a locals packed fast food chicken place wasn’t obvious enough, I had to be acting like I was possessed! Oh for Christ’s sake!!!!!

Got our chicken, and wandered through dark streets, finally making it back to the condo. We ate our Pollo Campero (I am now firmly a Pollo Campero person- I do not like Don Pollo or Pollo Compesto (there’s a lot of Pollo to be had in El Salvador). Went to bed and I started doing research on what might be my family…

This is not “our” Pollo Campero, but a pic of a sign I snapped the next day. They’re everywhere. And now, Pollo Campero is a major part of our El Salvador memories!!

Days 5 & 6: Puerto Barillas, Chocolate, and Our Soledad :(

Days 5 & 6: Puerto Barillas, Chocolate, and Our Soledad :(

DAY 5: Puerto Barillas

Today, I had a lot of work to do. And work wasn’t cooperating. I didn’t finish until almost noon, at which time we had to check out of the AirBNB and head to our new location for the next two nights- Puerto Barrillas. By now, the awe, shock, and horror of the previous day’s events had merged into acceptance of the situation, and of the fact that I really want no part of more crazy in my life. Brian is enough of that. 😉 We drove to Usulutan and stopped off at Super Selectos to grab a few groceries to take out to the resort. We knew it was quite a ways away and there probably wasn’t much in the way of facilities. We followed the directions and turned down an 11km dirt road (YES!!), passing through a couple of guard gates on the way down. Checked into the office and followed a guy on a bike through a lovely forested area to our little cabin. Oh man, it was CUTE!!

Brian, doing the Woo-Hoo jump!!

Brian falling down after said Woo-Hoo jump. #dontbreakahipoldman

We had a boat ride that was to start at 3pm, so we walked back down to the office area on the cutest little cobblestone path that crossed a little stream. I was liking this place! We needed sunscreen (still), so we stopped into the little store. A tube of sunscreen was $25!!! Are you kidding me?? Um, I’ll take potential melanoma for $50,000, Alex. We sat in little chairs near the water’s edge and waited about 10 minutes for our boat guy. He didn’t speak English. We cruised along many of the little islands that are a barrier between the Pacific and the mainland, and home to a lot of fishing villages. No access except by boat. I know this, because I used one of my new words I had learned on this trip. Puente. “Hay un puente a esta isla?”. No. 🙂

We pulled up on to a little tiny beachy peninsual thing. Literally about 20 feet across at the most and about 30 feet long before there was a barbed wire fence. There were a ton of birds hanging out here. We got out and walked around (that took about 5 minutes and the trash was just so disheartening). From what Brian gathered, we were supposed to sit out here in chairs that were on the boat and watch the sunset. Um, sunset was a good 2 hours away. I can barely sit for 2 minutes. We declined and headed back. It really was a nice little boat ride, though. It would have been fun to actually get out at some of the villages and wander around.

Came back to the resort and went to the room to get my computer so I could blog. The only wi fi was in the restaurant area. We ordered ceviche (OMG it was GOOD!!) and a plate of beef and a plate of fish. Pretty tasty, and not heinously expensive for being trapped at a resort where there were no other options. Used our phones as flashlights to navigate back along the forest path to our cabin. All in all, an easy, relaxing (for us) day. Which was much needed after yesterday!!

Traveling, Blogging, Ceviche, and My Baby- can’t ask for anything more!

Day 6: Chocolate, Wildlife, Our Soledad, and an Earthquake…

Today was the reason we were at this lodge. WILDLIFE!! When searching for where to see wildlife in El Salvador, nothing really came up. Apparently Medellin, Colombia and El Salvador have made a pact to make this trip as void of wildlife as possible… I searched for sanctuaries, and learned that Puerto Barillas had a monkey sanctuary nearby that we could tour, and a tour of a cacao farm (chocolate) as well. Sounded good, so here we were. And I must say, we were really digging the vibe at Puerto Barillas, which is surprising because we are NOT resort people. This was rustic enough to not feel like a resort, plus, there were no gringos to be seen which helped the matter. We went to the restaurant for breakfast and were handed menus. We had paid for breakfast with our room, but I could seriously not come up with the words to ask what breakfast was included with the room! Luckily, I had my computer, so I typed it into google translate and the lady laughed, read it, and showed us which ones. Sometimes, technology is just easier than fumbling through my limited vocabulary of nouns and verbs! Pagamos! Cuarto! Desayuno! Oy!

After a tasty breakfast, it was time for our cacao tour. It was just us (yay!), the driver, and the one office lady who could speak English. We have done a cacao tour before in Panama, but this operation, although still done by hand, was a bit more efficient. The owner of the plantation showed us his operation, with the lady translating when we needed help (which was most of the time!). He showed us the greenhouse with over 20,000 plants they are using to replace the old trees in the plantation. They will live to be about 70, but start being less productive around 40. Most of the trees in this plantation were ready for replacement. Sometimes they completely replace them, and sometimes they use them to graft on to mature trees which have been cut. It was really quite interesting!

Next he showed us the area where they bring the fruit to be processed. Literally, people bust open every pod by hand, scoop out the beans, and throw the shell into a container (the shells are used to feed cattle- no waste). The insides are put into a bucket, which is then dumped into containers made out of a special type of wood that doesn’t leach into the fruit. Here, it is fermented for several days. It starts out in the top box. The slats can be removed so they can shovel and turn the fruit into the next row of boxes when it’s time. Then, the last row of boxes. When this process is done, they go out to the drying trays. These trays are really smart, because if it starts to rain they can quickly slide them all under the roof- kind of like drawers. Way better than the old way of spreading them out on a huge cement foundation and hoping for the best- especially since they have to be outside for several days to dry. The English speaking lady took one of the completely dried beans from a tray and peeled it for us. The bean tasted like super dark chocolate (kind of bitter). I’m a milk chocolate girl, so that wasn’t really my gig. Then we got to try the bean right out of the pod. Well, not really the bean, but the white stuff around the bean. You kind of suck/chew it off the bean. Man, it was GOOD!! I wanted some kind of drink made from that stuff!!

The beans right out of the pod

The fermenting boxes

The drying trays

Souveniors. They’re the bane of my travel existence, because I am PAF (picky as fuck). I don’t want some random ass “I came to XYZ country and all I got was this dumb, meaningless dust collector made in China” souvenior. No, they have to MEAN something. And preferably be completely unique- like a carving or piece of art done by a local, that sort of thing. Here we were, Day 6 in El Salvador, and I had not seen one thing that even slightly spoke to me. Until I walked into that cacao warehouse. They had these burlap sacks that they put the dried beans in to ship off to Honduras. I KNEW I had to have that! When we were ready to leave, I asked the English speaking lady to ask the owner if I could buy one. He told her there were bags at the office in town. She said she’d see if her driver could pick one up. I said I’d pay for it, but really wasn’t confident that that was going to happen. The guy then walked into the warehouse and brought a bag out. He said it was dirty and I wouldn’t want that one. OH YES I WOULD! I wanted a dirty one!!! More character!!! I think he was rather shocked by my excitement over a dirty sack. I asked if I could pay him for it. No. And that is how I got my El Salvador souvenior. It’s going to go into a huge frame and up on the wall. And I bet no one else has one. 🙂 🙂 #score

Back in the van to head to the monkey sanctuary. We’re on all of these back roads deep in the cacao, banana, and sugar cane plantations. There are these 3 guys on bicycles with some kind of weird rope/belt thing wrapped all around them. The lady asked us if we’d ever seen coconuts harvested. NO!!!! We jumped out and went over to where they were climbing the trees. It was AMAZING how fast they could climb up! The guy would then tie off a bundle of coconuts and lower them down to the ground with a rope. So interesting to watch!

Head out on the open (dirt) road again and pulled over at what the lady said was the turtle and alligator lake. She said we could go this way to the monkey sanctuary- across a rickety ass bridge. If you have followed my travels, you know that rickety, high, shaky bridges are NOT on my itenerary, but somehow I keep ending up on them! This one wasn’t high or shaky, but it literally looked like any extra weight on any half-rotten board would cause you to plunge (about 4 feet) to your death in alligator infested waters!! She was doing it in wedge heels, so I figured what the hell. But I was nervous…. Halfway through we stood on said rickety bridge to look for gators- scanned the banks, but nothing. On the other side was a GORGEOUS little path through a lush forest. Eagle eye (Alligator eye?) Brian somehow spotted an alligator through all of the brush! I still don’t know how he saw that thing! It was a young one, maybe 4 feet long. The lady said there were some in here that were 12 feet! YIKES!! We didn’t take too many more steps before the forest broke out into calls of what sounded like a duck arguing with a monkey! Research has shown this to be a boat billed heron! And man, they were so cool looking! But they flew into the far trees across the gator lake as we approached. Between the distance and the foliage between me and them, these were the best pics I could get.

Really? How is it that I manage to find the most terrifying bridge in every single country??

We didn’t walk too far before we ended up in a clearing with a little ramshackle house, which was the home of Miguelito- the man who has been caring for the monkeys for the past 20+ years. Before I discuss our experience, let me tell you about this sanctuary. One thing I’ve learned in all of my travels, is that there is no one meaning for the phrase “animal sanctuary”. This one was most like the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary we visited in Borneo- farmers realizing they were destroying an animal’s entire habitat, and saving some of it for them. But it isn’t as much as they would normally have in the wild, so they are also fed by humans to supplement them. But the monkeys are for the most part wild and can come and go as they please. How did they get there, when there apparently wasn’t another monkey anywhere in all of El Salvador (at least that I had seen)? Well, in the 60’s and 70’s there was a personal zoo of sorts back here on the property. A few spider monkeys had escaped. As the land was sold off for agricultural purposes, it was known that the monkeys and other wildlife were surviving on what little patch of remaining forest there was. The various plantation owners decided to protect this strip of land, and today there are about 30 spider monkeys living here (along with the birds and alligators, and supposedly even some wildcats!).

The first thing we saw though was a monkey that couldn’t come and go as she pleased. Meet Soledad the spider monkey- the only woman I think I could possibly lose Brian to! Soledad was rescued from being a pet, and there was no place in El Salvador to take her (seriously, there are NO sanctuaries in this entire country, believe me I researched and researched before we went!). They brought her to Puerto Barillas hoping to integrate her into the wild with the resident spider monkey troop. Well, she had no clue about how to live in the wild, and the other monkeys had NO interest in adopting her. In fact, they harrassed her and fought her. To the point that she had to be separated from them to keep from being killed. That was five years ago, and she’s still caged. They bring in vets annually to check her, and have had promises from other organizations to come and get her, but here she still is. And it’s heartbreaking. These are social creatures. She deserves to be in the wild. But she has no survival skills. And the other monkeys would kill her if she was released. It sucks, but the reality of the situation is that there are two choices- cage her or let her go and die. God, I don’t know which is worse, and as much as my heart broke for her, I can not walk in there with my 5 minutes of experience and tell them what to do. They’re doing the best they know how with what they have. Soledad and Brian took an immediate liking to each other. She pressed her back up against the wire for Brian to scratch her, changing position every few minutes so he could reach another part. When she reached through the bars to touch him when he was standing a foot or so away, we almost both lost it. All she wanted was love and attention. The sadness in her eyes….God, god, god. I’m about to cry right now writing this.

Sweet, sweet Soledad. 🙁

While we were fawning over Soledad, Miguelito was out calling to the forest “Pancho!! Pancho!!”. He’s the alpha male. About 10 minutes later the trees were shaking with monkeys jumping all around. It made my heart break for Soledad even more- to see these free monkeys and be trapped must be hell. And I’ll be honest- I didn’t even care for these monkeys. They made me angry. Why couldn’t they just accept Soledad? Why did they have to be so cruel for no reason. Because primates, that’s why. And as a member of that group, I know how we are. And in reality, they are almost as trapped as Soledad- trapped on a small island of wild, surrounded by farms. Genetically, they can’t be very strong because there is so much inbreeding (Soledad would have been a welcome addition to the gene pool!). Who knows how many more generations they’ll last…

Maria, the alpha female, and Miguelito. She wasn’t happy with what he had, so she went right into his house to get what she wanted!

I seriously didn’t want to leave Soledad. I wanted to take her with us. And with my feelings being that strong, I can only imagine how Dr. Doolittle (Brian) was feeling. We left, full of ideas on how to better her life, and knowing we were helpless to do anything.

Back at the resort, we sat down to a cup of hot chocolate- Mayan style- made with the local cacao beans. It was really smooth and really good. While we did that, Brian was facetiming with work. I have photographic evidence now that he can work from anywhere in the world!!

Digital nomad????

It was still early- like 2 or so. We decided to go for a walk on the property and down some of the dirt roads we had driven down earlier. And it is here that I taught Brian about doodlebugs- aka ant lions. Those little critters that build the cup shaped holes in loose dirt, waiting for an ant to aimlessly wander in. Apparently Brian either a) never had a childhood or b) was imprisoned in Nebraska for his childhood where apparently even doodlebugs know better than to try to exist. (Spoiler alert: It’s b). I taught him how to take a little blade of grass and run it around the hole, mimicking an ant trying to climb out. At that point, the bug starts flipping dirt, and you can scoop your hand in and catch it! I did it on my first try. #tomboy Brian gave it a valiant effort on several holes, but just didn’t have the perfect techinique. I think it’s something that can only be acquired before the age of 10… I then caught an ant and put it in a hole, showing him how the gruesome process plays out in real life. Seriously, we had a ton of fun doing that for 10 minutes. We’re easily entertained!

We walked the grounds and then out on the dirt roads, hand in hand, talking and enjoy the sounds and sights of the forest. In between snapping pictures, of course!

Beautiful grounds of Puerto Barillas Lodge!

Have you ever seen a more perfect road to wander down??

This is Brian’s favorite tree- Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). He really wants one in the front yard. It would shade us AND the neighbors!

Turquoise browed motmot- (Eumomota superciliosa)…a stunning bird!! And just so happens to be the national bird of El Salvador!

Came back to the resort, and sat out under one of the palapas by the water’s edge so I could blog. All of a sudden, I’m moving, or Brian is moving, or the palapa is moving- HELL IT’S THE ENTIRE EARTH MOVING!! Just this really weird back and forth rocking motion. I’m sitting there staring at Brian like “What is happening?”. It lasted a really long time- like 10-15 seconds. Long enough to realize a) this is an earthquake b) this is not stopping c) we are 10 feet from the water and one of my top 3 fears is a tsunami. It was the biggest earthquake I’ve ever been in (and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years!). Kept updating the USGS site waiting to hear word on where and how big. It finally popped up- 5.9 just off the coast of Puerto di Triunfo- which was litterally the closest “town” to us and was just up the dirt road!!! The epicenter was about 20 miles from us. Further research shows that it was in the same exact location as a deadly 7.7 that hit in 2001. Eeps. (Side note: 3 days later I was sitting home in Los Angeles and ANOTHER earthquake hit!! Seriously, world?)

Blogged for the afternoon, until the no see ums (henious creatures that almost make mosquitoes seem tolerable) came out and started eating us alive. Bug repellent was in the store, but lord knows I wasn’t going to pay the price for it. We moved into the restaurant which was still open to the outside but a little further from the water. We still got bit a ton, but not as bad. Had a lovely dinner (with that awesome ceviche again), and headed back in the dark for our last night in our little forest cabin in lovely Puerto Barillas. We really like it there.

Day 7: A Grab Bag of Adventures for Our Last Day

Day 7: A Grab Bag of Adventures for Our Last Day

Our last full day in El Salvador, and we didn’t have any major plans. We had found an El Salvador travel book put out by Avianca Airlines in our cabin. Brian saw a lagoon thing that looked cool. And we wanted to check out Ilopango Lake because, well, we didn’t really have anything else to do as we made our way back toward the airport for our flight tomorrow. Packed our things, ate breakfast, checked out, and off we went to explore.

First stop, we headed toward the Laguna de Alegria. We had been spending all of our time in the area to the Northwest of San Salvador. This was our first time to really explore the Southeast side. The roads here were lovely with lots of plants and trees, and didn’t seem quite as dry as the other side. After about, well, an hour and 21 minutes of driving LOL, we saw this sign and knew we were in the right place! Turned off down a cobblestone road that went for a few miles back through coffee plantations. (Note to readers: If you are ever on this road, stuff chewing gum in your fillings and hold on to your spleen. Yowza, it was rough!) Soon we arrived at a little guard shack back off in the middle of no where (our favorite destination, hence the name of this blog!). And here, El Salvador threw us a curve ball. It was NOT $3 per person to get in!! It was $1 total for both of us!! Bargain!! (But the $1 I spent for the truck back up to the car after hiking Santa Ana volcano is still the best $1 I ever spent!).

Ok, here comes the back story. Laguna de Alegria is a volcanic crater lake, inside the Tecapa volcano. Legend has it that a mermaid lives in the lagoon!! Mermaid?! I’m there!! Another legend states that there is a Palmerito tree that has the ability to move itself from place to place within the crater. We parked and walked all the way around the lagoon. The waters are a dark emerald green mixed with a jade color. Very pretty. I wish the sun had been out so the lighting would have been better. We got sprinkled on a bit, but not bad. The water level was really low because of dry season, and the extensive banks were covered in powdery yellow sulphur. In places, holes were dug about 6 inches deep, and you could see that it was a solid layer of sulphur powder.

I was keeping my eye out for any little ripple on the water that might betray the location of the mermaid. But it was completely still, except for the rain drops. When we got about ¾ of the way around though, we saw her! Perched on a rock! I’m sure that when the water levels are up it’s a little more mermaid-esque, but it was fun to spot her anyway! No sign of a moving tree, though. 🙁

Continued our drive all the way out, through the exit (it’s one way), and back down the internal-organ-rearranging road. We started to drive through the next little town, Alegria, but it looked so cute and welcoming, that we had to stop! It was very “touristy” with stalls and shops all set up, but it just seemed to be such an odd place for a tourist trap! The only other place we had seen tourism at its souvenior height, was the ruins at Tazumal. Otherwise, El Salvador is pretty quiet on the tourism front. Still no idea what the huge draw is here, except that it is a very pretty little town with a really nice vibe to it! It didn’t feel quite as “gritty” as the other towns we had been in. And well, there were horses just walking down the middle of the road, so there was that!

Next stop, Lake Ilopango. There was no way to miss it- it’s the 2nd largest lake in El Salvador, after all! I always liken Google Maps to an abusive relationship- it beats me down, takes me on wild goose chases, tells me to “trust it” and turn the wrong way on a one way street, tricks me into thinking there’s a turn somewhere when there isn’t, etc… Frankly, it should be renamed Gaslighting Maps. But like a fool, I keep coming back for more, trusting it with its promises of “I swear, I’ll get you there THIS time!!”. So began our trip to Lake Ilopango… First, we had to drive through the INSANE city of Ilopango. Oh my god, we thought we had seen bad drivers in El Salvador. That was before Ilopango. Cutting us off, zero concepts of lanes, and the word “merge” apparently translates to “see who can get there first and shove the other person off the road”. Oy. The people of El Salvador are the lovliest I’ve ever met (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again). But put them behind the wheel of a car and all bets are off! Somehow we made it through the main part of town without a scratch on our brand new rental car. Of course, that was just google warming up…. We get on the far side of town and on a half dirt/half paved road. Up ahead…what was that?? A mirage?? Um, no. A mud puddle the size of a volcanic crater lake with a little stream feeding it on the right, and overflowing the side of the road on the left. Flashbacks of Cuba, when we had to turn around after MILES of traveling down a dirt road because the mud puddle was too deep and the closest tow truck was Miami… We just kind of stopped and stared at it. It was so murky we had no way of knowing how deep it was. There were tire tracks on the other side, so SOMEONE had made their way across, but how much clearance did they have. We didn’t think Budget would be pleased if we called them with, “Um, hello…you know that brand new Hyundai SUV with 200km you gave us? Yeah…it’s stuck engine deep in a pond in the middle of the road. Where? I don’t know- somewhere outside of Ilopango??”. What to do…what to do… We REALLY wanted to see this lake!! Fortunately, there was a man with an axe crossing the bridge. Yes, we have no qualms about discussing the depths of road ponds in Spanish with a man carrying a huge axe on the outskirts of some town in the middle of no where El Salvador! Axe man says if we stay to the left, we’ll be fine. I didn’t even want to know the situation on the right… Brian expertly drove through the road pond, thanked the man with the axe who gave us a huge smile, and we said our oft-repeated phrase for this trip… “I don’t think this is a road gringos go on!!” #bestkindofroad

From the middle of the road pond…

The google maps obstacle course, Ilopango Version, continued. Next obstacle, cows. Everywhere. Going somewhere important and not giving one single cow fuck about a car with two white people in it. Like seriously, they would NOT move! I’m not a huge fan of cows, in fact, there are only two kinds of cow I like- burger and steak. Something about them just freaks me out.

Our road starts getting a little worse (ha! Worse?! We didn’t even KNOW what “worse” was!!!). It’s now dirt, with occasional washed out ruts running through it. We are really far back into whereever we are. There was a little village back here. It has no name that I can find on any map, but it’s on a little peninsula that juts out into the west side of the lake. Google maps tells us to go straight through the town. We did. It then wanted us to continue up some road that really didn’t look like a road we should be on- more like a driveway. We decided to ignore google maps and turn around. We had seen a glimpse of the lake down another road that was to our left, so we decided to head down there instead.

Got to the end of the road and BINGO! This was the lake! There was a little restaurant, a beach side cafe, a few locals lounging around, some swimming, and of course chickens. And it was BEAUTIFUL!! I was so glad we had made it down here. And there were these awesome things, swimming in a little school, with just their eyes sticking out of the water. I had NO CLUE what they were, but was completely fascinated. Research shows they are four eyed fish! They only have 2 eyes, but they have evolved in a highly specialized way so the upper part allows the fish to see out of the water, and the lower part allows them to see under the water!

FOUR EYES FISH!!!!!!!!!!

We walked around a bit, then decided to head back. It was almost 3pm, and we still needed to get back to San Salvador and return the rental car before dark. We both had to pee big time. There was a line of 4 shady looking banos that had a sign that we had to pay to use them. We weren’t even sure who to pay. So we decided to forge ahead, sans bano break and hope for the best. So I’ve mentioned our loathing of retracing our route down roads- we like NEW roads. And google maps was showing two ways to get back to San Salvador. The way we came (boo-hiss, plus we didn’t relish the thought of driving through that crazy town again), or out the other side of the village. The out the other side of the village route showed 52 minutes. Perfect! We took off down a road that was definitely our best candidate for “I don’t think this is a road gringos go on!”. There were pigs tied to the side of the road for pork’s sake!

This was not a road, google maps. This was a glorifed cow trail. No lie. It started getting steeper and steeper. We had an SUV, but did not have 4×4 (which is our preference when we travel because we KNOW the kind of situations we get ourselves into, but they didn’t have one available). After the third time of barely making it up a hill because we were sliding backwards so bad, we got to thinking. If we got stuck back here, who knows how long it would be before someone came along. And we had an early flight the next morning. And it was just a couple of hours from being dark. We did not have any interest in traversing this “road” in the dark. We had to admit defeat and turn around. As soon as we got turned around, I said to Brian. “Do you know what we should do??”. Hell yeah, he did, without any explanation. BANO BREAK! In the middle of a road in the middle of no where El Salvador. And it was free. 🙂

Made our way back through the little village. I highly recommend coming here on a weekend (we were there on a Tuesday). Apparently there is Karoke! 🙂 Seriously though, the vibe there was really awesome. Oh, and I recommend coming during dry season. There was only one live stream crossing, but there were multiple dry ones that I am sure are interesting when it’s pouring!! Google maps wound us all through the city, through a dumb traffic jam because a school bus was trying to turn around in a space that would barely fit a compact car and held everyone up for like 15 minutes. Of course, the El Salvodorean drivers sat there patiently, waiting for the bus to resituate itself and get on the road again. Oh wait, no…they all honked and tried to fit into every conceivable space where a car might cram itself into- in their lane or not- to make sure they were 17” closer to their destination. Sigh. Drove through streets and made more turns than seemed humanely possible, and we even managed to make most of them and not have to turn around! Soon, we were back on the main road to San Salvador. We pulled our rental car into the parking lot of Hotel Rancho Argueta- the place we stayed at the first night.

Let’s discuss our vehicle, shall we? We pulled out of the Budget parking lot 7 days ago with literally a brand new shiny SUV in perfect condition with 200km (125 miles) on it. The vehicle in our possession now was completely filthy from being down every dirt road in El Salvador (some twice!). And it had over 1200km (750 miles) on it. Yeah, we’d been busy! Fortunately, as I mentioned in the Day 1 blog, this hotel rents cars. That means they have to be able to wash cars. I had to talk to the front desk about all of the following in Spanish…1) we needed to check in 2) we needed a car wash 3) we needed someone to pick us up at the airport after we dropped off our car at Budget 4) we needed a ride to the airport at 6am the next morning. That was a lot of Spanish, a lot of misunderstanding, but we finally figured it out! How much for said car wash….well, how much is everything in El Salvador?? $3!!!!!! And holy crap, that car looked BRAND NEW when they were done! Washed, dried, vacuumed, interior wiped down. I told Brian that I am so bringing my car down here for it’s annual cleaning!! And who was our brilliant car wash person? ENRIQUE!! Our English speaking “neighbor” we had met on the first day!! We stopped and talked about our trip, how much we had seen and done, and how much we enjoyed it. He was pleased. Dropped the car off at Budget with no problem, came back to the hotel, crashed, and got up the next day to head back to California.

A sign we saw on the way to Laguna de Alegria.

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on this trip. El Salvador was totally an afterthought when we realized that our flights to Nicaragua both laid over in San Salvador. But I am SO glad we came. This is Central America in the raw. No mega tourist hot spots and mega resorts over run with obnoxious white people. In fact, the only white person we saw in 7 days was the one woman in Sonsonate. You don’t see billboards for resorts, zip line tours, and the such. There really isn’t tourism here to speak of. The tourism we saw seemed to be more focused on locals rather than foreigners. It’s very much a “Create Your Own Adventure” kind of place, and when it came to that, we really kicked in the El SalvaDOOR (I made that pun up halfway through the trip and was determined to get it into this blog one way or another!!). The people here are WONDERFUL. I have never encountered such unbelievably friendly people every where we went. So warm, open, helpful, smiling, fun. And that says a lot coming from a self-professed people hater. 🙂 If you read this blog, you know we were EVERYWHERE. And not one time did we feel unsafe. Not one single time. In fact, the two things that concerned me the most about El Salvador was how safe it was and the language barrier. Neither of those things proved to be an issue at all. We encountered many English speaking people, and when we didn’t, the graciousness and patience of the people as I mangled their language to get my point across was heartwarming. And it gave me the confidence to speak Spanish and not feel like I was being judged or laughed at. Oh- and the dogs! By Central American standards, the dogs in El Salvador live like royalty! They all looked well fed (for the most part) and healthy. Thumbs up for that, El Salvador! Those are all of the pros. The cons? I can only think of two. The drivers. It’s kind of a free for all, so be aware. You really have to stay alert. And the trash. Oh, El Salvador, the trash!! Please quit throwing everything out of your car window and disrespecting your beautiful country! That said, all in all, I would HIGHLY recommend El Salvador for a traveler who is looking for a real, authentic experience without all of the bells and whistles. If you are a low maintenance type of person who can go with the flow, El Salvador is right for you! Will I be back? Probably not. Just because we really did hit all of the major things to see, and there are so many other countries in the world we still have to explore. But El Salvador will always hold a special place in my heart- mainly because of the people. Let me say it one last time….they are wonderful.

Belize 2014: Life. Changed.

Belize 2014: Life. Changed.

Where do I begin with this travel blog? Summer 2014. Belize. It’s everything. It changed my life. I have no idea what possessed me to journal my entire trip. I’m not the journaling sort. And in all the trips since that first one to Belize- another trip to Belize, France/England, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba, France again- I have not kept a daily journal. I hate that. I’m hoping this travel blog will help change that. But for my first outing into the unknown, those first baby steps on wobbly travel legs, I journaled. I poured out my heart. I captured every moment. Maybe I thought this would be the last time I would have an experience like this, so I had to be able to savor every detail forever. Fortunately, that is incorrect. In a way. Because although I’ve had experiences since and many more in my future, none were like this one. It was powerful in so many ways. There are no travel tips- just me pouring my heart out and trying in some small way to capture the magic of this trip.

Disclaimer: I didn’t change or add a word, except I did remove one rather rude reference to a tourist that was uncalled for. You might be offended by certain words or ideas. If so, I don’t care, so don’t waste your time alerting me to your delicate condition! And in case you’re wondering, Lisa was a woman I met on Craigslist following a post I made that basically said “anyone want to go to Belize?”. A post I made out of fear of being alone. I no longer have that fear, and I haven’t spoken to her since we got back to the US.

Jump to:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
Day 11
Day 12
Day 13
Day 14
Day 15

 

Day 1

 

I slept fitfully on the redeye flight. I was in the exit row alone, but the armrests didn’t lift up so I couldn’t lay down. I was folded up like a contortion artist in every position imaginable trying to sleep. I got some, but not much. Woke up as the captain was announcing 30 minutes until landing. Out the window was a solid cloud bank below us. Storms. We went through them and I got my first look at Belize in the early light of a 6:30am dawn. Lots of trees, interspersed with glimmering bodies of water- most likely large pools formed from the rain. The wheels touched down and the first sign I saw was one for Belikin Beer- the national beer of Belize. The plane got to the end of the runway and made a sharp uturn to taxi back up to the terminal. The second sign I saw was “Jesus is Lord”. Immediate dichotomy. I already love this place.

Deboarded and went through customs. Easy breezy. The shuttle guy I had lined up was standing outside with a sign with my name on it. Hopped in the van and headed toward San Ignacio. The rain was sporadic and quite heavy at times. We passed through a few small towns where houses were either large rundown cement structures with decorative balcony railings, or small rundown wooden structures. The poverty here is clearly apparent, but not overwhelming. More like people make due with the limited resources and funds they have and just do the best they can. Manny, our driver, was awesome. Lisa couldn’t understand him, his English was heavily accented probably with a mix of Spanish and Creole, but somehow after about 15 minutes I could understand him perfectly. I conversed with him for most of the hour and a half long trip about all things Belize, and he was obviously very proud of his country. He’s been to the US many times- to LA, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, New York. He was happy to share information and answer my questions. Did you know Belize only became a country in 1981? It was a British Commonwealth before that. He told me the industries that each district produces. We talked about hurricanes (rare here, but there was a devastating one in the 1960’s that wiped out Belize City), the animals of the country (he hates snakes, but they’re rare to see), how the Chinese run the supermarkets- all manner of things. I did ask him if the locals were resentful of the influence from outside cultures taking over local business opportunities (Chinese, Hindu, etc…). He said something beautiful. “Belize is like rice and beans (the “national” food)- the cultures combine and work together perfectly to create something good.” I liked that. How much truth there is to it, I don’t know. I also asked about crime. He said Belize City- no one goes there, not even locals. But San Ignacio is very safe.

Soon we were on the bustling streets of San Ignacio. It was market day, and I was excited! We passed by a large park area with dozens of vendors. Wound our way through the town and up a little hill, and then pulled up in front of a black iron gate. This was the entrance to Kumquat Cottage, where we would be spending our next week. We were greeted by 3 young men who took our bags from Manny, who I was kind of sorry to see go! I really enjoyed learning from him. The men unlocked the gate and let us down a little path to the house. And oh, what a cute little place it is! It’s about 1100 square feet, a large living room/kitchen/dining room, a really big bedroom with a king bed, and a nice large bathroom with a HUGE shower that has a mirror piece mosaic for walls. Outside, the gardens are SPECTACULAR!!

I couldn’t wait to get into town and start exploring (especially to get to that market!), so we walked down. Town is literally a 3 minute walk from the house. We were starving, and our driver suggested a place called Pops for breakfast. I had a breakfast burrito with eggs, bacon, potatoes, and beans wrapped in a hand made flour tortilla for- get this- $3 US!! We sat there talking for quite a while, then headed out. Lisa was only concerned about the fact that she couldn’t get a cell signal and that she had forgotten her ipod cord. So we had to go find a cord, then go to the phone store. I must have been giving off an antsy vibe after waiting at the store for 10 minutes, so she told me to go on to the market and she’d meet me back at the house (she has zero interest in soaking up any local culture, which I do NOT understand, but whatevz.) So I headed off down the streets alone.

As I wandered the streets, not exactly sure which way the market was but just following the sounds of very loud live music, I realized that I wish I would have come alone. Something about the thought of it scared me when I was planning this trip. I didn’t think it would be safe. But as I passed men sitting on the curb talking, dogs sprawled under cars trying to escape the heat, women herding small children, shop owners trying to get me to come in and take a look at their wares, I realized that I felt so peaceful and relaxed in this moment. I wanted that feeling for the whole 2 weeks. Lisa talks INCESSANTLY about her myriad of health problems. On the ride to San Ignacio, I’m trying to talk to Manny and take in the scenery- she’s just blabbing about bullshit. I turned a corner and there was a guy standing on top of a truck, surrounded by people, singing a reggae-esque tune. Apparently it was in support for someone who is running for mayor. I stood alongside the locals for a while, listening, and wishing I blended in better. I hate standing out as the obvious American tourist. The market was FANTASTIC! So many fruits and vegetables, jewelry, trinkets, clothes, almost everything you could imagine! I found a place selling local beef, and bought myself a Tbone steak for $3BZ ($1.50 US!!). Then picked up a bag of green beans, a potato, a pineapple, and 4 bananas for a grand total of $2 US!! This place feeds my inner cheapskate like nobody’s business!!!

Headed back up the hill with my treasures, and immediately laid down on the couch and crashed for 2 solid hours! I was so exhausted! Woke up and we hung out for a bit before heading down to find dinner. Our driver had suggested a place across from Pop’s called Cenida’s. It was 4pm, and they were closed until 5:30. So we headed to the central park area and found a modern style restaurant to have appetizers and a drink. We got some fried sweet potatoes that were seasoned with something AMAZING and served with an equally AMAZING dipping sauce. OMG, I could have survived on that alone! Also had a watermelon mojito for kicks. 🙂 Talked for a while, then headed to Cenida’s. Hadn’t eaten since about 9am, so we were both starving! Our waiter was Cenida’s son in law, and he was SO kind and friendly!! I really enjoyed just chatting with him in between ordering and drink refills and such. There was a darling little girl there, maybe just about 3 years old, that we were kind of playing with. I asked him if she was his daughter. He said, no, it was his sister in law’s child, and she was off in Belize City testing to become part of the Coast Guard. I ordered a steak with 1/2 rice & beans, 1/2 coconut rice, a salad, and plantains. $6.50 US!! And OMG, it was a) so damn good I could not even believe my taste buds. Seriously. and b) so much I couldn’t finish it all! I took half of it home. The sister in law came back from the Coast Guard before we left, so I talked to her about how she did, etc… What a LOVELY woman! What a lovely FAMILY! I felt so at home and at ease. Between the food and the kindness, I will be back there a few more times before we leave.

Came back, got a shower, washed my clothes in the sink, hung them up, and headed to bed. So exhausted. And that was the end of Day 1.

Day 1 Pictures

 

Day 2

 

6:36am Backyard garden of Kumquat Cottage

Right now I’m sitting in a swinging hammock chair in the gardens. There is a wonderful misty fog over the jungle this morning. The air is amazing! It’s just slightly damp, and the tiny little breeze makes it wonderfully cool. I’d say it’s absolutely perfect! And it’s much cooler out here than in the house. Because sometime early this morning we lost power! That means no ac. I fear my t bone steak will go bad in the fridge. I’m not sure if it’s a neighborhood thing or just our house. Lisa is still asleep and honestly I’d live without power, so I’ll wait to figure it out. Right now, I’m just soaking up the peace, swinging in the jungle in my pj’s, listening and writing.

I hear birds. A few species. One being a rooster a few doors down calling back and forth to his friend a little further down the hill. Another being possibly a woodpecker. I hear dogs every once in a while. A small yappy one now. A car every once in a while. At a little before 630, I heard a large bell being rung. Easy to know that was for Sunday morning service. At a little after 630, I was greeted with the sound of many voices singing way down the hill in town. Something about that sound winding its way thru town, thru jungle, and up the hill gave me goosebumps.

I ate my leftovers from Cenida’s last night, and topped it off with a banana. Perfect breakfast. I’m going to go in now and cut up a fresh pineapple.

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We got ready for a big adventure this morning- horseback riding! I ate my leftovers from Cenida’s for breakfast, but there was nothing here for Lisa so we walked to town. Most everything was shut down. One place was open for breakfast. It was there that we discovered our “no power” situation was town-wide. The electric company was installing new stuff, so power was off from 6am to 3pm. No worries, we were going to be gone most of the day. The problem was that we didn’t have wifi to check our email to see if the stables had confirmed our pickup for this morning. So in the vein of “better be safe than sorry”, we got a taxi in town.

The drive was AMAZING!! Oh, the lush, jungle covered mountains far off in the distance- the beauty was almost overwhelming. We pulled into the ranch for Hannah Stables and got out. We were greeted by a lovely English woman who came to Belize 13 years ago on vacation and never left (hmmmm….). She pointed to a huge stone ruin towering above a distant mountain and said “That’s where you’re going.” I can not even begin to describe that scene. The stables were part of a 400 acre farm that mainly grew cattle and grass. They also had a large organic garden and greenhouses so they are pretty much self sustainable. We met David, our guide. And man does this guy have a passion for horses! I love to see that in people! I’m not much of a horseback rider. Maybe been on a horse 10 times in my life. They paired me up with a horse named Obama. They do a lot of horse rescues, and Obama came from a Mennonite farm where they had basically worked him to death almost. He’s only 12, but they said he was done. He had a sadness and worried look in his eyes that hurt my heart. I talked gently to him, told him I had no idea what I was doing but would try my best to make it easy on him. He and I got along fabulously. David said he only has one gear- low gear. I said that’s perfect for me!

The ride through the jungle was absolutely breathtaking. With the deep green waters of the Mopan River on one side, and surrounded by jungle- here and there a clearing with a farm. We saw some HUGE ant beds. David said they were from leaf cutter ants. Later, I saw a little trail of them off to the side of the trail, each carrying a piece of leaf just like I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel!! I so wanted to stop and video, but I was lagging behind (Obama and I were in no hurry), and wasn’t confident enough to dismount and remount without asking for help. Hopefully I’ll see them again before I leave. It was such a beautiful sight!

We soon reached a highway. David told me no lagging! Keep up so we could get off the road as quickly as possible! Obama and I grudgingly agreed. We entered the Mayan village of San Juan Sucottz. We passed by families spending their time sitting and swimming on the banks of the Mopan. Men selling pineapples and tacos in makeshift stands or just right on the ground. In the distance I could see the ferry. This was something I’ve been so excited about! It’s a hand cranked ferry that crosses the river from the village to connect the road to the Xunantunich ruins on the other side. We reached the ferry and dismounted, leading our horses on foot. The crossing only took a couple of minutes. But there was something about it that was so peaceful and right. I asked David why they didn’t build a bridge. He said “Then that guy (pointing to the hand cranker) would be out of a job!” We laughed about that!

Once on the other side we remounted and rode a mile up the hill to the ruins. David handed us off to Eduardo. While we were getting everything together, Eduardo said, “Look! A grey fox!” He was so cute! So little! I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough though to get a picture. We started walking up the hill and soon the ruins unfolded before us in the midst of the jungle. The largest building, El Castillo, is the second largest man made building in all of Belize! This is a newer site, dating back to 700AD. A lot of restoration has been done on the ruins, and Eduardo pointed out what was original and what was new. He only has a primary school education, but his grandfather and father both worked on excavating the ruins alongside renowned archaeologists, and when Eduardo was 16 he started working on them as well. Again, he is a person with passion for the history! I told him I was a teacher, and he went into great detail about all of the buildings. There is so much more to be excavated on this site, there’s just no money for it. I climbed to the top of the palace, which for me is a major feat as I’m scared of heights. But I didn’t want to not do it. I climbed halfway up El Castillo. The second half was just too narrow and steep, and as much as I wanted to go to the top, I knew my nerves would get me on the way back down. After touring all of the buildings, we went inside the visitor center where many of the original artifacts are kept. The incense burners were amazing. There was a skeleton as well. It’s exciting to think about all of the things that are still buried under the large, unexcavated mounds. History that hasn’t been seen for over 1300 years just right there next to you, almost teasing you.

It was now time for lunch, and man was I ready for it! We mounted the horses, went back across the ferry, and headed into the Mayan village of San Jose Sucottz. Up some back roads, past ramshackle houses in various state of disarray, barking dogs, smiling people, and soon we arrived at Benny’s Kitchen. I asked David what was the best thing. He said everything. Not helpful! I decided to order the Pibil- shredded pork cooked underground served with avocados, pico, and homemade flour tortillas. I also ordered my first Belikin- the beer of Belize! We drank our beers and talked about Belize while we waited on the food. David is creole. I told him I could tell, because the French Creole people of New Orleans always have spectacular eyes and he did too. David has no internet, no phone, no hustle and bustle. I told him how much I love it here already, and started asking him about living there. I asked how much was a 1 bedroom to rent. He laughed and said what I considered a 1 bedroom is probably about the size of their 2 bedrooms. He was a little shocked when I told him how small of a space I live in. That I’m a minimalist. He was even more shocked when I told him I paid $1300 a month. He said that would buy me about a year and a half worth of rent here. Holy fuck.

The food came and it deserves its own paragraph. As delicious as Cenaida’s was the night before, this food blew it away! It was so simple, but AMAZING. It is seriously one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. I ate every. single. bite. I could have had more. I told David that if I lived here I’d weigh 400 pounds at the end of a year, because all that money I would save on rent I’d buy food. He laughed so hard. Such a sweet, genuine guy. I got a kick out of saying little things like that to make him laugh. Like when he joked about not having internet and he might be Amish (there are large communities of Mennonites and Amish here), and I said no wonder he liked horses so much and he probably had a buggy that he hitched to Blue (his horse) to go home in. He laughed and laughed, then stopped and looked at me and asked if that was rude. I said no, I’m a rude, obnoxious American so it’s ok. More laughter. The food and the company were just perfection. I am finding myself so at ease here, so natural. I love it.

We mounted back up and headed back along the Mopan River toward the ranch. Again, I was just struck by the beauty of the country. It will literally take your breath away. All too soon we were back at the ranch and saying our goodbyes to David and Obama. The lovely English woman drove us back to our house. The electricity was back on! Lisa had a headache, so she went and laid down. I decided to walk into town to get us some water. Being Sunday evening, most everything was closed, except for the supermarket run by the Chinese. I took some time to peruse the shelves. Lots of brands I recognized. Lots of Mexican looking brands. Most everything dusty. Lord knows how long it’s been sitting there. I grabbed two waters and headed back toward the house. There was a woman sitting on a porch of a house. We smiled as I passed, then I did something I would normally never do. I approached her and just started talking. We talked about the electricity situation, about where the best breakfast in town is (Pop’s that I had already found), and just assorted stuff. It was genuine. It was friendly. I thoroughly enjoyed that 10 or so minutes.

Finished my walk up the hill to the house. Took a shower, hand washed my clothes from the day and hung them up, answered some emails, talked to Lisa, then went to bed exhausted in the best way imaginable at about 9:30. Day 2 was wonderful in every way.

Day 2 Pictures

 

Day 3

 

5:41am, Kumquat Cottage Living Room

I woke up about 4:30 and just laid there for a while, listening to the occasional call from a bird. Then I heard a low rumble. Thunder. I got up and went into the living room. It was still dark out. I watched the lightening through the sky light and windows, followed by very distant thunder. There was something amazingly beautiful and poetic about it. When I come out of the air conditioned bedroom into the unairconditioned living room, it’s always an initial shock. But within minutes my body adjusts without me even realizing it. There’s something peaceful about that damp warmth. The birds began calling to each other more and more as the dark sky began to turn a pale blue/grey. I could soon see well enough outside to see that it had rained in the night. But I couldn’t hear it. Probably because of that infernal air conditioner!! It’s very still outside. Almost disconcertingly so. There are thousands upon thousands of leaves in every shade of green imaginable outside of my window, and not a single one has any movement. I’m laying on this HUGE beanbag type chair that is so comfortable. I could almost fall asleep again.

6:40am, Still in that bean bag chair

It’s raining now. I tried to pick up the sound of it on my cell phone recorder, but it’s not doing it justice. I think you have to not only hear this sound, but see it as the once perfectly still leaves gently vibrate under the falling drops. It’s gray and green outside. And lovely.

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After Lisa woke up, we piddled around for a bit and walked to town for breakfast. Went back to Pops. I had a breakfast burrito again, because for $3US I just can’t help it! I read on TripAdvisor that they have something called Fry Jacks that are amazing, so I ordered some for the hell of it. They were $1.50US, so even if I hated them no big loss. They were like these very thick sopapillas- I asked for honey to eat mine with. FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC!! I brought half of my burrito home with me. So $4.50 for breakfast and I’ll get two meals out of it!

We decided to go to the outdoor market after breakfast and buy things to make dinner. Got two T-bone steaks to replace the one that was killed when the electricity went out. He pulled a huge hunk of beef out of the freezer and cut me two steaks right there! Cost? $1.50US each!! Then we got some spices, some beans, some veggies to grill, some fruit. I love that little outdoor market. It’s maybe 20% the size of the Saturday one on the weekdays, but there’s still plenty of stuff. We then had to go to the regular supermarket to get a few things like charcoal. We were so loaded down that there was no way we were getting back up the hill with all of that! So we grabbed a taxi. After we unloaded everything, Lisa said she just wanted to hang out at the house. I’m enjoying her company for the most part, but she complains about a lot of things and I don’t really like the way she talks to and about the people here, so I was thrilled. Plus, I’m finding that I really enjoy exploring on my own…

I headed up the road walking in the opposite direction from town. Just me, my binoculars, camera, about $20 US, and a hat. All I need. My first stop was about 5 minutes up the road at the San Ignacio Resort. They have an iguana sanctuary there, and I wanted to take the tour. The next tour was in 2 hours, so I kept heading up the road to the ruins at Cahal Pech. All of the tourists (and this is slow season so there aren’t a lot) are in town. I was going in the other direction, walking through residential and business areas. I walked the entire mile and didn’t see another Caucasian. HEAVEN. There’s something inside of me that wishes I was darker and could just blend in. I know I stick out. I don’t want to be looked at or treated differently. I’ve never been so aware of this within myself when I’m in another country as I am here. I found the road to the ruins and headed up a VERY steep hill. At the top, there was the visitor center for Cahal Pech. I had done no research and really had no idea what to expect. It cost $5US to get in. The attendant said there were no guides today, so I’d have to just do it myself. No brochures or anything to help me out. I went through the visitor center and looked at many artifacts that had been excavated. My favorites from here and the site yesterday are the incense burners. Somehow I’m just drawn to them.

I started down an AMAZING trail through the trees. No ruins to be seen yet. Here I saw my first (and thankfully last) white people. One of them was a guy standing off the side of the trail poking a stick into the ground with an idiot buddy egging him on. There were 3 girls on the trail waiting for them, and a Belizian guide who looked very awkward. As I approached, I saw the fucker was sticking the stick down a hole. I said, “What poor creature are you molesting?”, not hiding my disgust. He said, “A tarantula. But it’s not coming back out.” I said, “Would you?” and kept walking. The guide smiled knowingly at me as I passed. I was immediately ashamed of my culture in that moment, and the desire to blend in and leave the American part of me behind was strong. I walked around a corner and there was a little souvenir stand. They had water, so I got a bottle and continued on my way.

I saw some fairly “regular” looking ruins, but they had been restored quite a bit and were in excellent shape. I walked through what I immediately recognized as a Mayan ball court, and was proud of myself for knowing it. I then headed up a set of stairs when a yellow butterfly caught my eye. I knelt down and fiddled with my camera, and a gorgeous green inch worm came crawling by me. Damn camera, I couldn’t get it to change to macro mode so I could get a close up!! So I’m messing with the camera, cursing it under my breath, and sweetly trying to convince the worm and butterfly to keep still for me until I could get everything together. Then I hear a voice behind me, “Are you having fun?” I jumped up and there was a Belizian man of the Creole variety (I could tell by his lighter skin, beautiful eyes, and accent- just like David yesterday). We talked for a few moments, and I told him there were no guides available and asked if he knew anything about the ruins. He said he did, but couldn’t tell me because he wasn’t a licensed guide and could get into a lot of trouble. There was NO ONE around, so I asked him if he could tell me as a friend. I put out my hand and said, “My name is Mary.” He said he was Leroy. I said, “Well, now we’re friends, Leroy, tell me what you can!” He explained a few things, but kept looking over his shoulder. I asked what would happen if he was caught telling me. He said they would take him to the police station and charge him! We talked for a few minutes, then he continued through the ruins and I went back to getting a pic of my butterfly. The worm had already disappeared into the jungle.

I walked into the next huge plaza, surrounded by stunning buildings. There was only a pair of archaeologists doing some excavating on one side, and 3 workers on the other side. I stood there taking a few pictures, then asked the archaeologists if it was ok for me to climb the stairs of the far building. He said yes. Then he called across to the other guys, “Rice and beans time! Go have lunch!”. And within a few minutes I was completely alone- surrounded by jungle and ruins. And it felt right.

I wandered toward the far building to climb stairs. I was met with a view that I can not even describe. Another plaza surrounded by the most beautiful ruins on all four sides. And I was completely alone. I said out loud, “Oh my god” because the beauty of it literally overwhelmed me. My words echoed off the walls, and a voice said, “You like it?” It was Leroy- sitting on top of the ruin on the far side. I walked down the stairs and into this new plaza, and toward my new friend. I climbed the stairs of the far building and sat near him. I was still in awe of this place, and I know it was written all over my face and in the words I could barely form to describe my feelings about it to him. He seemed pleased and proud that I was so taken by the place. We talked a little about the ruins, then started talking about our lives. He’s a construction worker and it was his day off. He goes to Cahal Pech to relax and think. He liked the idea that I was a teacher who would take the knowledge of this place back to my students. He offered me a cigarette, I declined, and he apologized for even offering it. I told him it’s just that I don’t smoke, but thank you for asking and I didn’t mind if he did. We talked about the beauty of the place, and how lucky we were that there were no tourists to interrupt the peace. The creole have a politeness and peacefulness to their speech that I find myself very drawn to. Very soft spoken and gentle. Soothing. And then he said something I wasn’t expecting. “I saw you, Mary. I saw you in the roundabout walking here.” That is the last little area of town before heading to the road to the ruins. I said, “You must have been wondering who is this crazy white girl wandering the streets all by herself.” We looked at each other and laughed. I found myself very attracted to him in that moment. He asked why my boyfriend wasn’t on vacation with me. I think that was more of a “Do you have a boyfriend?” question. I told him my boyfriend was in America on his own vacation and I was here with a girl friend.

We started talking about the ruins again, and he told me of the ruins behind me, how sacrifices were made there, and told me how to access them. I got up to go in the direction he said, calling back every once in a while to make sure I was going the right way (there were a lot of different stairs and ledges. He assured me I was heading in the right direction. I turned a corner and WOW. There was this long, roofed passageway like nothing I have ever seen in a Mayan ruin (I’ve been to a lot in Mexico over the years). It was almost like wandering through a medieval castle’s wall. The passageway took me behind the plaza, where I turned to go to the other side. I climbed some stairs, shouted to Leroy that I found the way, and started to explore a completely different building and plaza. This one was FANTASTIC! Still not a soul around except for Leroy, and I couldn’t see him anymore. There were so many rooms and stairs. I went down one passageway and there were about 3 flights of stairs going down. I got a feeling of not very good energy from there, so I decided to just keep going. More and more rooms. And then I saw something that is on my Belize Bucketlist- A BLUE MORPH BUTTERFLY!! It fluttered in over a wall and down a passageway. I chased it, but it disappeared. I headed back toward where Leroy was. He had disappeared as well.

Cahal Pech was the most unbelievable, awe inspiring, feeling of being seeped in history. Of everything I’ve done so far, I have enjoyed this the most. The solitude, the energy, being surrounded by dense jungle, the meeting with Leroy. Amazing and something I will never forget. I hope to be able to go back before I leave.

I headed down the hill toward the San Ignacio Resort. Normally anything with the word “resort” in it would not be a destination of mine. However, here they have an iguana sanctuary. There are two species of iguana in Belize- spiny tails (which I saw when we were horseback riding) and greens (the ones most people are familiar with from pet shops). Belizians love to eat the greens, to the point that they are decimating the populations in the wild. This conservation effort breeds iguanas at the facility and releases them into a 17 acre sanctuary behind the resort. They have two cages- one for the breeders and larger iguanas that are waiting to be released, and one for the babies. The guide took us to the cages where we could pet, hold, and feed the larger iguanas. They were not too keen on the holding and petting part, but when the guide brought out leaves for us to feed them with, they literally came running at us! Most were about 24″-30″ long, and even as someone who has worked extensively with reptiles, it was a little nerve wracking for these Jurassic looking creatures to be heading toward you in a pack! The alpha male was close to 3′ long and his name was Oscar (as in the grouch!). We couldn’t pet him- he was boss of this cage, the main breeding male, and would bite the crap out of you. I admired Oscar from afar with my camera lens.

The 5 other people in the tour where in the main area of the cage, feeding and ooooooing and ahhhhing. I noticed one iguana in the back corner by himself, so I went to him. I immediately noticed that his spine was horribly contorted. I asked the guide about him. He said his name was Ziggy (for his zig zagged spine). His little spirit was so gentle, my heart went out to him. I stood there feeding him one leaf after another and talking softly to him. He would look me right in the eye, almost like his reptilian brain could understand me. The guide walked over and said, “Oh good! He’s eating!”. I asked more about him, and what the guide said I understood, but it broke my heart. Little Ziggy’s internal organs will never be able to develop right because there is not enough space within his body cavity. Eventually, as the organs expand, he will be in a lot of pain and will have to be euthanized. The vet said that will happen in about a year. If there was any hope of saving that little guy, I would have gladly paid to have the vet do it. But I know that it’s not a correctable problem. This is the second time I’ve written about this, and the second time tears have filled my eyes about it. We then went into the baby cage and these little guys were literally climbing all over us! It was fun and cute, but my mind remained on Ziggy and his sweet little spirit. He weighs heavy on my heart.

A short five minute walk, thankfully downhill, and I was back at the house. It was about 2:30, and I’m too antsy to stay in for long, so I told Lisa I was heading down to search for Cahune oil. Eduardo, our guide at Xunantanich, told me about it after I pointed out some palm fruit in a nearby tree. He said it’s better than coconut oil, which immediately peaked my interest. He said they have it in the market in town, so I headed over there and started asking. The first two booths said they only had coconut oil. It was packed in old beer bottles and such with no labels- not in some prepackaged branded thing. That is why I hadn’t noticed it before. I went to another booth that had a bunch of bottles with clear liquid in them and asked for Cahune. She said they had it! I asked to smell it- it has a nutty/smoky smell and it definitely wasn’t coconut oil. We had a little chat about her booth and customers (she was an old lady- maybe in her mid 70s). I decided to buy an avocado as well as they are in season here now. Total for both items, US$3.

Alone and in town, I decided to wander around to the areas we hadn’t explored- the areas that interest me and are away from any damned gringos. The residential neighborhoods. So I took off down a street and wandered past a variety of what we would call rundown, but perfectly functional, homes. Most with bars on the windows. From one house I could hear a tv, with three or four children singing along to a cartoon sounding character. I just stopped and listened. It was a beautiful, joyful sound. Some houses are cement, some are wood, all could use some fixing up and paint. But there isn’t a ton of litter here like in Mexico. No more than in my own neighborhood. One thing I’ve noticed about the few Belizians I’ve had the pleasure of talking to- they are proud. Proud of their country, their resources, their businesses. As well they should be.

I had been in flip flops all day and traveled about 4 miles total since I left the house in the morning. My feet were killing me, so I decided to find some kind of little dessert and have a seat. I headed back to town and found a ice cream stand that had a little plastic table with 4 mismatched chairs around it out on the sidewalk of the tourist street (the one street that is blocked off to cars). I ordered a strawberry cheesecake ice cream on a cone for $1US and sat down by myself, just watching the people go by. This is so out of my normal mode of operation. So many things I have done here are. I love it. There was a rasta looking man and a white man standing at the barricade to the street having a conversation several feet from me. The rasta man asked me how my ice cream was. I took it as an invitation for a conversation and walked over. He is from Ambergris Caye, the beach area I’ll be at next week. He told me he was born on Ambergris, and when you are born there they give you a very small piece of land for a fish camp on either Ambergris or Caye Caulker- his is on Caye Caulker where I’ll also be next week. I told him I brought my fishing pole and needed to know where to fish! He thought that was funny- an American girl packing a fishing pole to come to Belize! I told him I wasn’t the type to sit on the beach with a cocktail. He told me to fish in the Split, during the first tide change after dark, and I’ll catch snapper this time of year. I told him we were staying at a little hotel right on the Split and I’d be sure to do as he said. We talked about me being a teacher, the white guy he was talking to was from the UK and here on a trip with a school group. I could care less about the UK guy and didn’t really engage him in conversation. I asked the rasta man where he lives, since he’s from Ambergris, has land on Caye Caulker, and is in San Ignacio. He shrugged and said “Wherever.” Perfect answer. He then informed me that he is a “certified herbalist” and has “medicine” if I need any. I politely declined and said I probably should be on my way. A mandatory jail sentence for weed is not on my itinerary!

Headed back to the house, where Lisa and I fired up the BBQ. We grilled onions, zuchhini, and the creme de la creme- our T-bone steaks!! It was truly a feast! The steak was one of the best I’ve ever had, so tender. I’m sure because it was fresh, local beef. After dinner, we talked for a while, listened to music, and I journaled while a thunderstorm with heavy rain rolled in. A very relaxing end to one of the best days of my life.

Day 3 Pictures

 

Day 4

 

5:52am Living Room of Kumquat Cottage

The rain stopped last night fairly early on. I’m glad, because I’m supposed to do my trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave today. We have to ford a river on foot to get to it, and if the water level is too high from too much rain, the government won’t allow tourists in. I hope it didn’t rain too much in the mountains overnight. This is the one thing I wanted to do, and I won’t leave until I do. I’m supposed to get an email at 7:30 telling me if it’s go or no. As I was sitting here, I saw the high limbs of the trees in the backyard garden bouncing. Something BIG was moving through them- and fast! I grabbed my camera and ran outside, but it was gone. I think it may have been a monkey…

7:04am Living Room of Kumquat Cottage

Just got word that the cave is open! I’ll be heading to Actun Tunichil Muknal in a little over an hour! I’m so excited!!! This is going to be an amazing adventure…. Lisa is staying at the house again, maybe venturing out for a massage. She asked me if I thought it was safe for her to walk to town alone. Jesus fucking Christ, lady. I’ve spent HOURS there alone. If I was that much of a princess, I’d assassinate myself.

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Carlos Pantini with Caveman Tours picked me up at the gate promptly at 8:15 to go on the one tour there was no way I was going to miss- a trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal (commonly known as the ATM cave). I had been in correspondence with Carlos for a couple of weeks. I told him that I wanted the educational tour- not the adventure- because I’m a teacher, and I knew he was considered the best guide for knowledge of the cave. Come to find out, his wife is a high school chemistry teacher. I asked several questions about how strenuous this trip was- I knew there was swimming and climbing involved. I made my fear of heights known. All of the emails back were vague about my fears. I would email him right back and ask for more clarification. More vagueness. Later, this would become a joke!

As I waited outside by the gate for Carlos to arrive, the tops of the tree limbs started moving. My monkey from this morning was back and heading right for me! I got underneath the tree, and there was some squirrel like creature, but bigger than a squirrel, with a faintly black and gray/white ringed busy tail. It was such an amazing little guy! No one I asked all day could tell me what it is, and the picture I took is lost to the broken hard drive on my computer. 🙁 But from the research I’ve done, it is of the Bassariscus genus, most likely B. sumichrasti.

The man driving the car was David. We were to meet a family of three to join us. I was immediately bummed, because I find myself very selfish when it comes to the Belizian people. I want them all to myself! No other white people allowed!! Imagine my relief when I saw they had their own car and were to follow us! We drove to the town next to San Ignacio- Santa Elena, and stopped at the store. Carlos walked down the street while David was in the store getting ice and drinks. Carlos comes back with about 8 tacos wrapped in foil that he had gotten from a street vendor. OH MY GOD! I swear, the food here is out of this world. I have not had a single thing that was not outstanding. We headed down the road toward the caves, which were about 45 minutes away. I got to talking to Carlos and David and we were really hitting it off, laughing and joking about all kinds of things. Carlos asked me if I’d had mango since I’ve been here. I said no. He tells David to pull over a little ways up and gets me some sliced and seasoned mango from a roadside stand. Um, DELICIOUS!

We drove on the main road through quite a bit of farmland. Carlos would point out certain farms and what they specialized in, who owned them, etc… He and David were always waving and calling out to people standing alongside the road. Soon we turned on to a dirt road that would take us to the Roaring River Valley and the ATM cave. We stopped at a little village and David introduced me to his brother. Except I’m not really sure he is his real brother, because Carlos seems to refer to EVERY male Belizian as his brother! I really like David. He’s very quiet, but I can get him to talk a little bit. When I get him to laugh is the best. We stopped on a bridge across a small river, and I immediately started peering over the side, looking for fish. David noticed and came to look with me. We pointed out what we saw to each other. I told him how I packed a fishing pole and wish I had it with me now. He told me how he lives in San Jose Sucottz (the same village we went through when we were horseback riding- where Benny’s Kitchen is), and he fishes there and catches big fish. I told him that sounded so fun! He said I was welcome to come anytime. Carlos is much more outgoing and confident, but then again he’s the boss. He told me how he worked for other tour companies for years and eventually decided to open his own. We talked about my teaching, and I told him I’m the boss because I don’t like being told what to do! They both seemed very impressed that I was my own boss, and maybe a little bit shocked.

The Roaring River Valley is AMAZING!! Farm fields, mainly Mennonite, go on for as far as you can see. Teak, Mahogany, corn, coconut. Jungle covered mountains in the distance. The Mennonites lease the land from Canadian companies who bought it while Belize was still a British Colony- Belize only gained their independence in 1981. I asked Carlos how much the Canadians bought the land for. $5US PER ACRE!! In this beautiful, fertile valley! There was a man with a broken down tractor on the side of the road. We pulled over, and David and Carlos tried to help him for about 20 minutes. No luck. Normally I would be an impatient mess, wanting to get to my own agenda. I just got out and walked around in the weeds alongside the road, looking for critters. I didn’t find any, but it was fun. I’m so much more relaxed and “go with the flow” here than I am at home. Honestly, I didn’t know I even had it in me.

Soon we were bumping our way down the road again. Carlos pointed out these mounds that were about 6 feet high scattered here and there in otherwise flat corn fields. He said those were Mayan house mounds from about 700AD!! If you dug underneath, you’d find what was left behind. Oh, I can not tell you how bad I wanted a shovel and a lookout guy in that moment!! Soon we reached a gate that led to the trailhead. We parked, and got out. I officially met the Dad, Mom, and 9 year old son, Eli, that would be going with us. They are from Alabama. We got our helmets and headlamps, and left everything else behind. No cameras!! Why? Because an idiot tourist (I am convinced an American) was taking a picture of a 1300+ year old skeleton in the cave, dropped the camera, and left a huge hole in the skull! Had I been there, there would have been one more human sacrifice in that cave…. God, people. I can barely tolerate them anymore. Anyway, after that the government said no more cameras.

We headed off on a fairly wide (probably 3′), flat trail through the jungle. Carlos began stopping us and telling us about the medicinal purposes for different plants. When he was 5, his grandfather began taking him into the jungle and teaching him jungle medicine. My god, but it was FASCINATING!!! Thank goodness we trusted him, because it was “smell this, eat this” the whole way! Some things you were to eat directly. Some things you boiled and drank as a tea. Some things you made into a paste. Ear aches, bug bites, sore throats, stomach pains, headaches, cuts, toothaches- the jungle has a remedy for all! At one point, he chopped open a HUGE termite mound- like the size of 3 basketballs- and a zillion termites scattered everywhere. He said they taste like carrots. I grabbed one, and just one had such strong flavor- of CARROTS!! It was really good so I ate a few more. 🙂 Oh, how I wish I had my camera!

We had to cross the Roaring River 3 times. When we would hear Carlos call out “Refreshing!!”, then we knew it was time to get in the water! Refreshing was a bit on the chilly side for me! But it felt wonderful once you were in for a few minutes. The first crossing was about waist deep. When I stepped in, I was surrounded by a fish I immediately recognized- tetras! Carlos said they were Mexican Tetras (a freshwater aquarium fish) and they were about 2″ long. I could have stood there all day watching them nibble me! The other two crossings were only about knee deep.

I hiked right behind Carlos the entire time so I wouldn’t miss a single word. Plus, I didn’t want to engage the Americans in too much conversation. The little boy, Eli, took a liking to me immediately though and wanted to walk right behind me. He talked a lot, and I found myself getting a little annoyed and trying to tune him out. We soon reached a little encampment of sorts- tarps hung up as makeshift roofs in a few places. This is where archaeologists were working. We had reached the cave. We scrambled down some rocks. Carlos pointed to his left and said, “Look. The entrance.” We were greeting by an amazing site! A keyhole shaped hole in the side of the mountain, with blue water running from it. Stock Photo. It took my breath away. It was like a keyhole that once you passed through, would lead to an amazing adventure.

We ate a snack of banana muffins that Carlos had bought in town. DELICIOUS! We then put on our gear. Carlos told me to go first. I was a little apprehensive, but would never let it show too much, so I climbed down into the VERY refreshing (cold) water! After I got used to the shock of it, he told me to swim across to the other side- about 20′. The water was about 15′ deep. To enter the cave alone….eek. But I took off doggy paddling! I soon reached the natural rock bench area inside that was submerged. I turned around and sat down, facing them on the other side. My confidence soared! Carlos asked me how I was. I jokingly said, “Wonderful! I’ve got this handled now and can lead the rest of the way!” He laughed and said he’d heard that before! As I waited for everyone else, tetras swam all around me. I held out my hands and they would swim right into my palms and I would talk to them softly. If the others noticed, I’m sure they thought I was insane! Carlos told me to climb up onto the rock ledge, and I managed to do so pretty easily. The rest of the family came next, and I helped them get out of the water by extending a hand. Carlos was last. We were now in the sacred Mayan underworld- the cave of Actun Tunichil Muknal.

We began swimming through the cave as a group, headlamps and Carlos leading the way. We were the last group in for the day. This is the part I will never be able to do justice with words, because the images and sounds and feelings must be experienced. Unbelievably huge cave formations like things I have never seen before, and I’ve been in a lot of caves. Many would sparkle like diamond chandeliers when our lamps would hit them. The water flowing through the cave echoed off the walls, and the sounds of dripping from above mingled in. It was almost sensory overload. In many places the ceiling soared above us, 100 feet high or more. We alternated between swimming and walking through ankle deep to waist deep water. Eli was a little nervous, and instead of going to his parents, he stayed ahead with me. I would encourage him and soon his confidence increased and he was really taking it all in and loving it! Carlos would shout back instructions to me, and I would help the family over rocks, point out foot and handholds as we climbed along, etc…. It felt good to be helping and not just being in my own headspace.

At one point, Carlos told me to take a passage to the right and for the family to follow me. Again, a little apprehension creeped up, but I quickly sucked it up and started walking through waist deep water and a pretty low ceiling. I called back instructions to the family. “watch your head here” “Dropoff, so take a large step to the next rock”, etc… After about 20 feet I reached a T with a very narrow channel that almost looked man made. I shouted to Carlos which way. He said left, and then I saw his headlamp about 50 feet down. He had taken a short cut and allowed me to lead by myself. I worked my way towards him, using the same commands he had been to lead the family back to Carlos. I was pretty proud of myself.

Now it was time for something really scary for me. Climbing high. I’m afraid of heights, and had expressed my concern to Carlos in email a few times before I arrived. I asked specific questions about how high, etc… And he would give me some vague answer or ignore that part of the email. I tried about three times before I have up on getting answers. And here we were… Facing a boulder about 10 feet high. Despite the coolness of the cave chilling my wet body, I started feeling heat rise through me. Fear. Words to formulate an excuse as to why I wasn’t going up there started to form in my mind. I quickly stopped them. I could do this. Carlos went first, showing us each hand hold and foot hold. I watched and listened so carefully, but when it was my turn, I blanked. He called out each one to me and slowly I ascended. My heart was pounding. But I reached the ledge where Carlos was and turned around and sat down as he instructed while the others made their way up. We weren’t done yet. We had to make our way up a steeply angled rise, carefully following instructions. All I could think about was that we would have to go back down, and for me that’s way worse than going up. But soon we were standing on a large ledge with two slate monuments standing up and some pottery. We were standing inches away from 1300+ year old artifacts left here by the Maya. Amazing.

We worked our way back down toward the river. The thought of that boulder was blocking out any enjoyment of the amazing formations all around. Within a couple of minutes, I was standing on the ledge, looking at the top of the boulder and the river 10 feet below. Fear gripped me again, but Carlos was encouraging. He stood at the top and told me exactly where to put my hands and feet. I focused on his voice instead of thoughts like “if I fall and break a leg how in the hell will they get me out of here”. Soon I was standing in the river, helping the others.

We wound our way further back into the cave. It was so spectacular. I could never describe the formations I saw. We heard voices and rounded a corner. There were a group of eight people (the maximum allowed) on a ledge about 15 feet above us, preparing to descend a huge boulder. Fuck. Not again. Carlos explained that we were now a little over a half a mile inside the cave. It had taken over an hour to get here. He said we would climb up here, see massive amounts of artifacts, then go back out the way we came. As I watched each person successfully make it down, my fear was heightened rather than relieved. It was a long way down. Maybe I could just sit here and wait for my group. But the thought of disrespecting Carlos by asking was stronger than the fear. The last person made it to the bottom, their headlamps disappearing around the corner. It was just the five of us, a nasty boulder, and the true secrets of Actun Tunichil Muknal ahead.

Carlos went first. I wasn’t ready. I let Eli and the mom go. That sick feeling in the pit of my stomach grew. I was pretty sure I could make it up. Making it down was the problem. I reached up and grabbed the first handhold and put my foot in the correct notch. Step by very slow step, I climbed the boulder with verbal cues from Carlos. When I saw his outstretched hand and grabbed it, I was thrilled. When I saw the steep incline of the angled cliff ahead, my heart sank. This was getting to be too much. When the dad got to the top, we started our new ascent. This time I got back behind Carlos and followed his lead. After a couple of minutes we were on flat ground. This is where we would enter the huge rooms that contained massive amounts of pottery and even human remains. We sat down and took off our shoes as per government regulations in this area. Carlos had us turn off our lights and be silent, to pay respect. The darkness was thick and palpable. You literally could not see your hand in front of your face. We turned our lights on and proceeded in our sock feet.

Within a few steps, there was an orange ribbon on the ground, and behind it huge pieces of vessels carried here by the Maya over 1300 years ago. Many were broken, victims of the flooding that happens in the cave from time to time. Some were whole. Several were almost completely calcified to the cave floor, as if the cave was claiming them as its own. The sheer amount of pottery was overwhelming. Literally hundreds of pieces, every where you looked, and just inches off the trail. We were walking over a floor that had been created by years of water flow. There were ridges and little depressions between them. In almost every one of those thousands of depressions were pottery shards. Carlos said stay on the ridges. And then, to our left, was a skull. Just laying there, its open socket stare fixed forever on the formations hanging above. After that, two full skeletons next to one another. Bones, most calcified and now a part of the cave floor, in a jumbled heap from having washed down from a little ledge above. Most likely these were human sacrifices.

Carlos told us to look back, and shined his light at the ceiling. Every cave formation I have ever seen was in this place! Stalagmites, stalactites, ribbons, chandeliers, columns, huge glistening looking things. Carlos said no wonder the Maya thought this was a mystical place. Imagine being here, full of fear of the underworld, nothing but torches to light your way, the flickering light creating eerie moving shadows that must have looked like spirits to them. Wow…

We then saw a skull with a huge hole in it. Not because of a brutal death, but because of an idiot tourist dropping a camera on it. The disgust I felt at that moment… God. People ruin everything.

We rounded a corner, and my headlamp hit something terrifying. A ladder. About 20 feet high. My fear of heights goes double for ladders. They have always been the worst, because if I can see thru slats where I’m stepping, I freak out. At the top of this ladder was the culmination of our trip into the cave- the crystal maiden. A completely calcified skeleton of a young girl who was sacrificed here. But how could I do this? I had never been more than a few rungs up a ladder before my heart would start pounding and my palms sweating. And this wasn’t some good old sturdy American ladder. This was two extension ladders tied together and somehow lashed to a sheer rock wall with ropes! Fuck this. I was done. I would let the others go ahead and wait for them.

Carlos looked at me and my face must have said everything. He said it was OK and I could do it. I said no. Boulders are one thing but at least they’re solid and I can’t see thru them. Ladders are my arch nemesis. He said he would help me. And something happened in that moment. I did not want to disappoint this man. But I also wanted to see this through to the end. To overcome my fears. Carlos went first, then told me to follow. Fuck. I put my hands on the highest rung I could reach and stepped on. Slowly, slowly I ascended, step by step with Carlos encouraging me the whole way. My heart was in my throat. It seemed like an eternity, but I reached the top. And now I had to swing out to my right over a gap of nothingness to get on to the ledge. This is the stuff of my nightmares. But there was Carlos’ outstretched hand. I trusted him. I took it and he guided me across. It was now me and Carlos, high above the cave floor, in the room of the crystal maiden.

Eli came next, then the mom, then the dad. Eli was so proud of everything he had been doing in the cave and said more than once that his friends would never believe him. I told him he rocked and high fived him. He was beaming. We all sat on the ledge and Carlos had us turn off our lamps in respect. Complete darkness immediately surrounded us. We each spoke about what this place meant to us. We then turned on our lamps, walked a few feet, and there she was. The crystal maiden. Sacrificed in this spot, deep in the cave, about 1300 years ago. Her remains were covered in the permanent jewelry of the cave, beautiful calcium deposits that glistened in our lights and affixed her to the floor so she could never leave. She was beautiful.

We turned to leave, and I was gripped by fear of the only thing worse than going up a ladder – going down one. We sat on the ledge above it. I told Carlos I would stay right here and live, just please tell all of the guides to bring me a little food and water when they come. I was only half joking. Eli said he would stay and keep me company. I think he was a little nervous about the descent too. Dad went, then mom, then Eli. Carlos swung across that gap and got on the ladder. He said he would be right behind me. This was it. He told me to sit and scoot to the edge of the gap, facing the dropoff. I did. Fuck. I then had to turn and kind of get on all fours to reach over and put my foot in the ladder. I did. He told me how to get my hands in place. I was now completely on. My legs did not want to move. I felt as frozen as the crystal maiden. Each gap between the rungs felt like a mile. My foot would go ever so slowly to the next rung until I was sure it was perfectly in place and steady before I would make the next move. Sometimes Carlos would put his hand on my ankle and guide it to the rung. And then, we were at the bottom. I did it! For the first time in my life I climbed a ladder!

Now, it was just a matter of retracing our steps to the entrance of the cave. We wound our way back through the field of pottery. Then Carlos stopped and said he was going to show us something tourists never see. He pointed to a hole at the base of the cave wall about 3 feet high and wide. He said, “Miss Mary will go first. Walk on the ridges (there was pottery everywhere), crawl through the hole, and look to the left.” When I got to the opening and got on my hands and knees, there was a completely undisturbed mud floor. A hundred people go thru this cave a day. No one had been here since it flooded last. I was so honored, as I knew this was something Carlos was doing for me. I crawled several feet and there was a complete vessel! Large, maybe 18″ across, and in a shape unlike any others. Very flattened, almost like a ufo shape. It was amazing.

We reached our shoes and put them back on. I had very little fear of descending the big boulder now. Carlos actually sent me down first so I could help the others with the technical last few steps. His voice told me where to put my hands and feet, and I was down in no time. He gave instructions to the rest at the top, I took over near the bottom. Right foot across to the little ledge, step down with your left foot to the next ledge, turn and face me, reach across to the wall, right foot on the wall, and step down. My confidence was strong. We made our way out of Actun Tunichil Muknal. Soon we were at the large entrance pool. I was the first one in, and Carlos sent me out first as well. As I swam across to the waiting jungle, I realized I was not the same person who entered this cave. And I was glad for it.

We hiked back through the jungle to the truck, Carlos, me, and Eli leading the way. Most of the time we couldn’t see or hear the mom and dad. Eli was so excited. We talked about all kinds of things, and he was especially enamored of Carlos’ machete. At one point, Eli and I realized that Carlos had gotten way ahead of us and we were alone. I said let’s catch him and we took off running thru the jungle. Carlos saw us and he started running. So much fun! On the last river crossing, Carlos looked back and said, “Be careful, it’s slippery”. The sound of “slippery” still hung in the air as I went down! He thought that was hilarious and was laughing so hard. I told him comedy is all about timing! All too soon, we were at the parking lot, where David had rice and beans waiting for us, and a cold Belikin. It was wonderful. Eli sat at a table with me.

We said our goodbyes to the family, and David, Carlos, and I got in the truck. We joked about my emails concerning heights that I had sent. Carlos told David that he was being vague on purpose, but I just would not stop with the questions and he had never seen anyone like that! “I’m stubborn,” I said with a grin. They quickly agreed! On the way back, a large 13 passenger van passed us. Carlos said it was his dream to have one of those. And it clicked with me. I love this jungle. I love the people. I love Belize. And I want to help Carlos like he helped me today. We started talking about sourcing better equipment and me helping him with that, a website, and marketing. We talked about my teaching, and I said I would love to volunteer teach. Carlos said he would get me a meeting with the director of education for the Cayo district! I said the only thing that would keep me from moving to Belize is that I can’t get Diet Dr Pepper. He said he knew where. I didn’t believe him, until we pulled into a store several miles up the road. By God if there wasn’t a cooler with ddp in it! Coke has a monopoly, and only coke products are allowed in. This was “black market”, $2us a can, and worth every damn penny.

All too soon, we were in front of the house. Carlos wanted to come in and meet Lisa and see if she was really a princess like I said. He joked that he would knock on the door, machete in hand, and tell her he was a caveman and was going to drag her off to the jungle. I said she’d die of a heart attack! They came in, we talked for a bit, and then they had to go. Both hugged me warmly, twice each. And then they were gone. But I knew I’d see them again. My friends.

No pictures today. Couldn’t take any in the cave, and I dropped and destroyed my computer that had what pictures I did take on it. 🙁

 

Day 5

 

I woke up very excited to go to Guatemala and see the ruins at Tikal. And for once, Lisa was actually joining me. But by this time I was comfortable being alone and actually preferred it. Our guide, Elias, picked us up at 730. My excitement quickly faded as I climbed into a van full of 7 dreaded white tourists. Oh how I longed to be in a little pickup with David and Carlos! I climbed into the only available seat, the far back, and sat next to a 17 year old girl named Winslow from North Carolina. I hoped she was shy and would leave me alone. She wasn’t and didn’t. After 15 minutes, we passed through San Jose Succotz where Carlos and David live and a place I feel especially drawn to, and I seriously considered jumping out. But my exit was blocked by Winslow.

Just a few minutes later we were at the border. I hadn’t realized just how close we were! I got in line first, as I tried to do with most things. With them behind me, it was like they weren’t there. I first got an exit stamp on the Belize side. We then got into a different van on the Guatemala side, I sat on the front bench this time, and Elias took our passports to get the entry stamp. We also picked up four other tourists, one of which looked suspiciously Belizian…. I immediately liked him just based on that.

The vibe in Guatemala was different. I could still see Belize, but I knew I wasn’t there any longer. It felt depressed and poor and dirty. Not necessarily bad, but just not warm and proud like Belize. We drove past ramshackle houses and farmlands. Horses tied so close to the highway they were sometimes in it. Pigs running down the side of the road in villages. It felt primitive. San Ignacio is certainly not a hot bed of technological advancement by any means, but it doesn’t feel primitive.

We stopped at a lake. Women were washing clothes on stone tables. Men were fishing in canoes. Chickens ran loose. It was pretty, but again, primitive. I walked away from the group and stood alone taking it in. Back in the van the tourists were all having their own conversations, and the cacophony was deafening. I wanted to be alone in the jungle, surrounded by its music and rhythm. The jungle was whizzing past my window, but it wasn’t my jungle. This Guatemala was truly another country.

The van pulled into a little village, and I saw two girls under a tarp making tortillas. A block or so later, we stopped at a souvenir shop of the worst kind. It was in a dirty, poverty ridden village, but inside was squeaky clean, with overpriced trinkets arranged neatly on shelves. I had to buy something to exchange my dollars for quetzals. So I bought a bag of coffee beans and quickly checked out. I asked Elias if it was OK for me to walk down to the tortilla stand. He smiled a knowing smile and said yes. I think he understood that I wasn’t a sheep like the rest of the group.

I headed off alone down the street of a Guatemalan village I don’t even know the name of. It felt peaceful, leaving the tourists to ooh and ahh over junk. I secretly hoped they were all taken for every dollar possible. I got to the tortilla tarp and the two young girls looked at me like I was crazy, and then looked down as though they shouldn’t have made eye contact with me. I don’t think they were used to tourists walking down here. I waited a few moments for them to engage me, but they didn’t. It took me a bit to remember how to ask how many tortillas. I tried tentatively, “cuanto tortillas en una bolsa?” They giggled at me and said cuatro. Progress! I again conjured up my limited Spanish. “Cuando cuesta para cuatro tortillas?” They giggled at me again and said uno quetzal. That’s about 13 cents!! I said, “cuatro tortillas, por favor.”, very pleased with myself! One girl mixed the tortillas by hand. The other put them on a concave stone surface over a fire. I wanted a picture, so said, “Fotographia, por favor?” and held up my camera just in case I had the wrong word. They giggled and nodded yes. I took a picture and said, “Va a Los Estados Unidos” and patted the camera. They thought that was really funny. I smiled and said gracias, and headed back to the monkey wagon. Back on board, I ate a tortilla. It was warm and delicious. And real.

Another half hour of insipid, meaningless banter and we arrived at Tikal. Elias led us down a trail and pointed out some HUGE caterpillars on a tree. They felt like velvet. I wandered away from the group and found another caterpillar on a tree. A brilliant green one with branching spikes all over him. I knew better than to pet him! I shouted to Elias to come look, and the sheep followed their shepherd. He said this was a fever worm and would make you very sick of you touched it.

We continued down the trail, and soon arrived at some small ruins with some beautiful carvings. Normally, I want to stick close to the guide and absorb all of the information. I just couldn’t bring myself to be a part of this “group”. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I wandered off to get a closer look at the carvings. The Belizian looking guy that had boarded back in Guatemala walked over and started talking to me. He was from San Ignacio! His name was Gonzo, and he was an archaeologist, working right now at Actun Tunichil Muknal, and as a tour guide. I told him I was at ATM yesterday with Carlos. He knew him.

The next stop was the grand plaza. Tower 1 rose high above the trees, with tower 2 directly across from it. It was spectacular. The other two sides had layered ruins, one with a lot of palapas that were covering original carvings. We got a little orientation, and then had 30 minutes to explore on our own. First, I went to the ruins across the plaza from the palapas. Birds were nesting in all of the dark rooms, rushing out and scaring the crap out of me when I’d enter! Some of the rooms had graffiti carved into the walls. Ancient ruins, relegated to the status of a gas station bathroom. Disgusting. I then walked across to the ruins with the palapas, admiring the stela (upright carved monuments) and the altars (round structures low to the ground). There was a large palapa covering a huge room deep inside the ruin, about 15 feet down. I took a picture of the wall and the camera put a square over what it recognized as a face. Wow! It was a face! A huge one. Stunning and breath taking.

Tower 1 was not accessible, but I saw people on top of tower two. I walked around to the back and saw some rickety ass looking wooden stairs. No thank you. I started to walk back to where the group was. And then I thought of Carlos and everything he had done for me yesterday. I looked up. Way up. I can’t even climb sturdy metal fire towers in the states. But by God I was going to try. I made it up the first flight with no worries. Then, the second flight. I could easily see between each step to the ground and it was freaking me the fuck out. I got about halfway up and stopped, old familiar heart pounding and sweaty palms. I considered turning around. But I wasn’t going to disappoint Carlos, even if he didn’t know about it. I continued SLOWLY. People were passing me, shaking the steps, and making it worse. But step after step I continued, and soon I was at the top of tower two, the queen’s tower, and I felt like one. The view was amazing! I snapped some pictures and headed back down, a little faster than I did going up!

Met up with the group again and started hiking to the next spot. Elias pointed out the most amazing wildlife! We saw keel bill toucans, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, a tarantula, a coatamundi, army ants, and more! The jungle reverberates with the energy of life. I think that’s why I love it so much.

During hikes, I would hang at the back of the group, keeping separate but close enough so I didn’t take a wrong turn. Gonzo somehow ended up next to me and we talked about the Maya. As an archaeologist, he was a wealth of information and had his own hypotheses about different topics. I felt like I was getting my own private tour.

We reached tower four. Elias said he had climbed it too many times and would wait at the little refreshment area at the bottom with anyone who didn’t want to climb. That was most of the group. He said it was about twice as high as tower two (woah). I took my zip off pants bottoms and sunscreen out of my pocket, set them on the table, and headed for the stairs- first one to reach them. These were constructed a lot better and harder to see through the slats. I started up. And up and up and up! No fear, just steady progress. At the top, there were about two dozen people sitting on the rock stairs of the tower, starting out at the jungle. Too crowded, plus I would have had to walk a little closer to the edge than I was comfortable with. I leaned against the stone. In front of me were the expansive jungles of Guatemala. For as far as the eye could see. The tops of towers one and three extended above the canopy, the only clue of civilization. It was breathtaking.

I made my descent and sat at a table with Elias and Gonzo, my back purposefully to the others. We talked about ideas of government and religion, then and now. How nothing ever changes really. Soon the others joined us and we prepared for the hike out, and a much needed lunch.

Gonzo and I walked alone together at the back of the group, talking. I wish I could convey the comfort level I feel when speaking to people from Cayo district. I am normally socially awkward. But I have a flow, an energy, with these people. At one point we caught up to the group as Elias was explaining that the small plaza area we were in, with small ruins, was a place of festivals and celebration. He led us down a trail. Gonzo bent down. “Mary! Look at this!” and he held up a piece of chipped rock. He explained that it was a chopping tool. There were shards of tools and pottery EVERYWHERE along the trail! We crouched down and started going thru them piece by piece. Soon I could distinguish the artifacts from the rocks. He said these would have been deposited in the trail as the ruins were being excavated, and what we were finding didn’t indicate this was a place of celebration, but more of a place of production! That was so exciting to me! Observable science at work! It took every bit of restraint not to pocket an artifact or two. After all, they were right in the middle of the trail, being trampled. But that’s disrespectful.

After about a mile and a half hike out, we reached the parking lot. It flew by, because of the conversation. When we reached the lunch place, I realized I had left my pants bottoms back at tower four! Fuck! Those were my only pants!! I asked Elias if I could run back and get them. He said it was too far, and he’d get them tomorrow when he came back and bring them to me. Fuck. I brought them because Carlos told me that the doctor flies were bad in the lunch area. They are flies that bite really hard. I was a little concerned, but it was 230 and I was STARVING. Gonzo sat next to me and we talked and had a delicious meal of chicken and mushrooms. When we were done, Elias appeared… With my pants! I couldn’t believe he ran all the way back there!! I thanked him profusely. He told us we would be leaving in about 15 minutes, and had time to go across to the souvenir area if we wanted. I decided to check it out.

I walked over alone. It was like Mexico. Stand after stand of tourist junk, overpriced, with pushy salespeople offering you a deal. Ugh. I went into one shop. The woman was trying her best to sell me stuff I had no interest in. I politely told her no thank you a half dozen times, and headed out. Then I saw it. The thing I had been wishing for ever since I arrived… A WATER BOTTLE HOLDER!! It had a canvas outer with a painted picture of a toucan and said Tikal Guatemala. There was a colorful cloth flap with a hole to go over the top of the bottle. And a strap to go over your shoulder, freeing up your hands. Perfect! And for $5us, a steal. I didn’t even try to haggle. They need the money more than I do, and I’ve always hated that whole process.

Soon I was back in the front of the van, listening to the inane chatter of idiots, while Guatemala passed by me in a blur. I sat quietly, daring not to move for fear of attracting attention and having one of them speak to me. Guatemala looked the same as it did this morning, a hundred years ago, and probably how it will look a hundred years from now. We arrived at the Belize border. As I stood in line with my passport I thought, “I’m home.” It was such a pure thought out of no where.

Elias drove the van to town instead of dropping us off at our house first. I told Lisa I’d walk home. She couldn’t believe I’d do that after all the walking I had done. I told Elias goodbye and thank you. A woman on the other side of the street with a five gallon bucket caught my eye. I headed over. Huge chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves for $.75 cents each us. Perfect. I walked up the hill to the house.

I checked my email. Carlos had gotten me a meeting with the education director of Cayo district for 9am tomorrow morning so I could discuss volunteer teaching! And he was going to take me to some places tourists don’t go to. Every day here is full.

Day 5 Pictures

 

Day 6

 

9:34am office of the education minister of Cayo district

Carlos picked me up this morning. He handed me a flash drive with all of his pictures on it so I can help him build a website. He thought we would have to go into town to get it copied and was amazed that I did it on the computer at the house within two minutes! I don’t think he believed me, because he asked to see, and when he saw his pictures on my computer, he smiled so big. He could only drop me off at the education office, as he got a call this morning from a woman who runs a local lodge. He said she scares him sometimes, as she is very strict in business. She wants to work with him to use him as the guide for her guests. But she is very business minded and he is learning from her. I told him he can’t be Belizian in business, he must be tough! He laughed and said he knows and is trying. So he didn’t leave me completely with nothing to do, he took me to the car rental place. He then drew me a map to two places he wants me to go. Big Rock Falls and Rio On Pools in the Mountain Pine Ridge area. I guess that means soon I’ll be getting a car and heading off into the Belizian countryside alone!

My meeting with the director went well. He explained the school system to me and the process to get a teaching license. He gave me a stack of paperwork and said to email it directly to his office and he will help expedite it. Who you know…

1015am Cayo car rental

Tuki was the cab driver who picked me up. A new friend! He used to live in Los Angeles. Such a nice man, and he had his six year old son with him. He said I should shop around for a rental, so he brought me here. The price was the same as the other… $80us with tax and insurance. I didn’t really want to take a taxi to the other place so I asked if that was the best he could do. He said he’d do $75. I joked how for only that five dollars, I guess I’d have to go to Flames (the other place). I said his car could sit here and make no money, or he could give me a deal. He told Tuki, “I like how this girl works!” We all joked a bit more about it and he ended up giving it to me for $70. GREAT deal! I hated to see Tuki go. Such a warm man. He gave me the name of a friend of his who would take care of me at the beach. Also gave me his card and said he loved people who loved his country and he could tell I did, and to be in touch when I came back. I will.

1048am smartphone office

I need to rent a phone for my trip, just in case, so I’m waiting in line. I just got gas. The attendant was SO nice. Everyone here laughs and jokes all the time, so I fit right in! I told them I needed to walk to smartphone and parking was scary. Could I park at the station. He said no, but ran across the street, stood in a space and guided me in! I love this place!

113pm Big Rock Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge reserve

Carlos told me that along the dirt road I should look for a little gift shop called Garcia Sisters. I pulled into a little driveway. The door was locked, so I walked around until I found Maria… A little old Mayan lady, probably 70 or so. I told her Carlos sent me and she proceeded to tell me all about the business. She was preparing for an exhibition in Belize City at the end of August. She told me how she’s working with sacred seeds to create jewelry, and I asked to see. She took me into a little room in the back and pulled out piece after piece delicate jewelry, with hundreds of different seeds for decoration. Some of the seeds looked like precious stones. Beautiful! She explained how each one had a benefit. One for energy, one for protection, etc… She showed me all of the fabric pieces she had already cut out and told me what she planned to do with each. She then told me how she was invited by the Smithsonian last year for an indigenous people’s art exhibit, and some of her stuff is there on permanent display! All this, from a little Mayan lady, down a dirt road in the middle of a jungle! I bought a few sacred things that she said were ancient Mayan remedies and protections. I told her how nice it was to meet her, and truly meant it. Pulled out of the grass driveway and back on to the dirt jungle road.

I made it to the first destination! Down stunning, secluded jungle roads of dirt, through isolated yet beautiful villages. And now, after following a very steep trail down into a canyon, I am sitting on a huge piece of granite in front of a roaring waterfall. The terrain here is no longer jungle. I’m now in a pine forest. On the way, I stocked up on supplies in Santa Elena. Two large bottles of water and a pack of coconut cookies for $2.25us. I then walked down the street a little ways and bought six chicken tacos from an old woman who had a makeshift kitchen under a tarp for $1us. A perfect lunch in a perfect place. Someone is calling my name…

==========

Carlos had texted me that his friend Eric was going to be in Mountain Pine Ridge today with a tour group and he had told him to keep an eye out for me. Never in a million years did I think we’d cross paths at the same time, so I really didn’t give it any thought other than a kind gesture from Carlos. Imagine my surprise as I sat in front of a huge waterfall, journaling, when I hear my name being called loudly in a Belizian accent, “Mah-REE! !” I turned to look and there was a large man with about 7 people maybe 100 yards away. I hadn’t heard them approach over the sound of the falls. I called back, “Eric!” He beamed. I clamored over the rocks and worked my way toward him, thinking here I am all alone, in the middle of no where Belize, 20 miles from the nearest civilization (loose term), and someone I’ve never met before knows my name. I reached him and it was like we were long lost friends. He said that he was behind me at the gate (I had pulled over and let him by), and when he saw a woman driving alone, he figured it had been me. But they had missed the turn off and gone several miles out of the way, which is why I beat them here. I joked that I’d help him get back to the main road if he wanted. He gave me a much appreciated cold Belikin, and we talked for a bit. He introduced me to his tour group, who probably thought the whole thing was a little weird! White American woman, alone in the wilderness they had paid someone $100US each to take them to…

I bid farewell to Eric, promised to come see him when I got to San Pedro where his office is, and headed back up the steep canyon. Windows down, Belizian radio playing mainly Jamaican music, nothing but me and a dirt road, with an occasional car passing me that I would wave to. I felt free. Free, alive, and in the moment. I followed Carlos’ handwritten map to Rio On Pools. There were a few cars parked at the trailhead. I got out and started hiking down. Two little girls about 7 and 9 were walking with a little boy about two. They had blond hair and blue eyes and the little one said, “hi!” to me in a really enthusiastic voice. They were in soaked t shirts and shorts and barefoot, so I asked them if the rocks hurt their feet. They said no, and that started an entire impromptu conversation (the best kind when in Cayo). Even though they had perfect American accents, they had lived in Belize their whole life. I had seen some Mennonite women in the parking lot, and assumed these must be Mennonite girls. We talked about school, I told them I was a teacher. The little one had the most exuberant, outgoing, fun personality! She practically just bubbled over with life. The older one was much more reserved. I asked them their names… Lolita was the younger one and Latishia was the older. As we said our goodbyes and I started down the trail again, I wondered how soon it would be before religion extinguished Lolita’s spark.

It wasn’t too long before I could hear the sound of falling water. I rounded a corner, and there was Rio On Pools. A huge flat area of reddish brown granite, with large pools scattered here and there, and a nice waterfall at one end. There were about 20 people here, most young children and teens, mainly in the large pools near the waterfall. I went downstream to find some privacy. I passed by a couple cooking something that smelled divine over a campfire. I found a little sandy trail through the trees and took it. I came out far enough downstream that I was away from the crowds, but because the area was so flat I could still see them. I didn’t have a suit, so I stripped down to my bra and panties and slid down into a refreshing pool about waist deep. It was fed by a little waterfall. The feel of the cool water washing away the sweat of the day, and the sound of my own little waterfall and the joyful screeching of swimming children upstream was so relaxing. Large clouds floated overhead. I looked for fish, but saw none. So I just stood and soaked it all in. After about fifteen minutes, it started to rain a little. Clamoring over the smooth granite in flip flops had been a little sketchy when it was dry. So I decided to get out and make my way back to the trail. I dressed, and no sooner than I had buttoned the last button, the shower became a deluge! Huge drops of warm rain came down in a torrent, making the calm water in the pools dance furiously. I laughed out loud for no reason other than the pure joy of this remote place. As quickly as it came, the rain stopped. I tentatively made my way across the rocks toward the trail.

Along the way, I ran into Lolita and Latishia again. They were in little dresses this time and off to retrieve their cousins. Lolita said she liked me. I said I liked her, too. And we both went our separate ways. About halfway up the hill, in true Jimmy Buffett style, I blew out a flip flop. That slowed down my progress quite a bit, but I was happy it happened here instead of at the much steeper trail of Big Rock Falls. I got to the car and saw the Mennonite women from earlier. Long dresses, cloth bonnets. I asked them if they were with Lolita and Latishia. They quietly said yes. So quietly I almost thought I had broken some taboo by speaking to them. I said they were lovely and friendly little girls. The women smiled. As I drove away, I wondered how little Lolita would be in another 15 years.

The drive back out of Mountain Pine Ridge was just the same as the drive in. Windows down, Jamaican sounds blaring from the radio, dirt road ahead, dust behind. I soon reached the gate again, and pine forest reverted back to my jungle. I reached the T on the map. If I turned left, I would go back the way I came. The way Carlos said to go, through quaint little San Antonio village. If I went straight, according to the rough map I should reach the highway again. I had no idea how far it was, exactly where I would get spit out, or what I would drive through to reach the end. Safety and familiarity or the unknown and adventure? I looked at my ever dwindling gas gauge, said fuck it, and chose the latter.

This road was no different really than the one I had come in on. Dirt, jungle, houses scattered here and there, an occasional passerby in car, on bike, or on foot that I would wave to. The only difference was that it was somewhere I had never been. It seemed like I was on this road for a lot longer than the one coming in. I did get a little apprehensive a couple of times as I looked at the gas gauge, but I had no fear about being stranded without help. I knew someone would lend a hand if needed. It’s the kind of people they are. The distance between houses became closer and closer, and soon I was at the main road in Georgeville. I turned left and headed down the Western Highway toward San Ignacio. I stopped at the diet Dr Pepper store, walked in barefoot, and walked out with another six pack. I felt like a local.

That night, there was a soft knock at the door. I tentatively asked who it was through all of the locks (Belize is warm and friendly, but just like anywhere in the world, there is an “element”). A gentle voice said David. It was David from horseback riding! I opened the door and greeted him warmly. He said he had come by last night to take me fishing at his friend’s house on the river, but I wasn’t at home. I was immediately disappointed that I had missed that opportunity! In his hand, David was carrying something small and grey. I invited him in and he showed it to me. A baby armadillo!! He had rescued it from some kids up the road who were torturing it. Sweet, kind, gentle David. His spirit is so powerful. I held that little armadillo and it slept in my lap for over 2 hours while we all talked. No one ever comes to visit me in LA and I am glad for it. Here, nothing made me happier than this impromptu visit from my new friend. David has no email, no phone. No way for me to keep in touch. But I know I’ll find him again someday.

Day 6 Pictures

 

Day 7

 

My last morning in San Ignacio. I got up, ate a tamale from the fridge with a ddp while I waited for 7am, for Julio to come pick up the car. He was prompt, and we talked in the driveway for a bit. I hated to see him leave because I knew that would be my last conversation in San Ig.

I walked to town for the last time to return the cell phone. I hadn’t intended to, but I just instinctively walked to the farmers market on the other side of town. There was a woman with a pickup truck full of coconuts and a cooler, wielding a machete. The sign said fresh coconut water. I bought two clear plastic bags full for $1us. I strolled thru the fruit and vegetable stands, savoring the sights and sounds and smells and smiles. I felt at home. I turned up a street to the left and walked back to the house.

Mr. Manny arrived at 830 to drive us to Belize City, with a stop at the Belize Zoo. I was glad to see the first man I met in Belize again, but he was also the one who was going to take me away. We locked up our little Kumquat Cottage, loaded our bags, and drove off. As we crossed the Hattiesville bridge, tears filled my eyes. Bye San Ignacio. I will be back.

We drove along the Western highway for about 45 minutes, and then we reached the Belize Zoo. This zoo is unique in a few ways. Only animals native to Belize are there, they are all in natural habitats, and they are all rescues! It’s an awesome place. You can literally touch many of the animals, they are so close! There are about 50 species here. The one I was most excited to see was the the tapir- the national animal of Belize. I headed toward their enclosure. They were BIG! Like pigs almost, but with long snouts. The first one approached. I could literally bend down and reach out to touch him through the fence! Wow! As he walked away, he sprayed me. I guess he considered me his territory now. Lisa was completely disgusted. I was honored! How many people can say they were sprayed by a tapir?! A smaller one approached. According to the sign, his name was Fuego and he was rescued from a forest fire in which he lost his mother. I pulled some grass from my side of the fence and fed it to him while I petted him. Amazing.

I saw so many spectacular animals… Ocelots, toucans, peccaries, silly spider monkeys, crocodiles, owls , parrots. But one really stopped me in my tracks. A harpy eagle. It didn’t even look real… It looked more like some magical beast out of Harry Potter. It was large and powerful. Majestic and intelligent. Its presence was commanding. I had never seen anything like it. I almost felt as if I stood there long enough, it would speak to me, like an oracle.

I searched through the jaguar cages but the big cats were no where to be found. I wasn’t disappointed. They were doing what they should be doing… Hiding deep inside a thick jungle, resting from the heat. I looked at my map. Somehow I had missed the agouti and paca enclosures. I back tracked and still couldn’t find them. A staff member was on the trail, so I asked him. He said he would take me. As we walked, we talked. His name was Albert, and he had worked at the zoo for four years. He took me to the agouti area, but they were all hiding. He started asking me if I had seen different animals. I said yes to all except the jaguars. He said I must see them! He led me to the enclosure and called out. Damned if a big, gorgeous, yellow jaguar named Junior didn’t come walking out of the jungle right up to us! I couldn’t believe it! Had there not been a row of electric wire keeping him from the edge of the fence, I could have reached out and petted him!

Albert then took me to another jaguar enclosure. This was a jet black jaguar, that again came right to us. He said this was Lucky, and I already knew his story from having researched the zoo before I left. He had been left at a hotel, where he had been an attraction, to die when the owner abandoned the property. In fact, his cage mate did die. Another day or two and Lucky would have suffered the same fate. Now he was a massive and commanding presence. Albert explained that there were a total of 17 jaguars at the zoo, 14 of them were in the back as there was no where to display them. He told me about the jaguar encounter where I could go in their cage. Sign me up, I said!

I paid $5us for an encounter with Lucky. It was just me and the handler alone in a little cage within Lucky’s enclosure. The handler called, and soon this huge, beautiful animal was inches from me. The handler fed him chicken through the bars. Wow! Mega teeth! The handler had Lucky stand up against the cage so I could give him a high five. I was petting the paw of a 200 lb cat! The claws were massive! You could just feel the power in him. What an unforgettable experience.

130pm Belize City water taxi to San Pedro

We left my beloved jungle behind, exchanging it for mangrove forests as we approached the coast. Soon we were in Belize City, and the vibe was not good. I said, “We’re not in San Ignacio anymore, Toto.” It felt sad and rushed and depressed. Crowded, dirty, and desperate. I smiled at a young woman through the window at a stop sign. She scowled at me. I want my jungle back. My friends.

We bought our water taxi ticket for San Pedro. $17.50us one way. Got in line, then crammed in shoulder to shoulder like sardines. Now we’re racing across blue gray water, little cayes in the distance, salt air whipping across my face. It feels good, but I want my jungle back. Now.

We arrived at the Portofino. Just fucking kill me now. We’re a six mile walk from town. This resort is nothing special at all. I know Lisa is disappointed, because this was the only place she insisted upon and booked herself. But she is being upbeat for the first time on this trip. She complained 24/7 the last week, but now that we’re at a place she booked, it’s all roses. We paid $55us for kumquat cottage. She is spending four fucking hundred dollars a god damned night for this place! And it is CRAP. The pool isn’t anything special. Boring. The beach is TINY, like about 10 feet from water edge to grass. And the water here, like everywhere on ambergris, is full of sea grass. There’s one restaurant, which is fucking EXPENSIVE because they have you held prisoner. The wifi is down. The air conditioner sucks. And the worst part? Fat , lazy, selfish, idiotic, white tourists. I’m disappointed that I even agreed to give her $100 a night for this place.

When we arrived at the hotel, I unpacked my bags. One of my diet Dr peppers had exploded. Ugh! I washed out the bag in the sink and took it out to dump it over the balcony, just barely missing a black kid who was filling up the little foot tub to rinse sand off of your feet. I apologized and joked around with him a bit. His name was Travis. I told him bye and went in to finish unpacking.

We ate at the restaurant. $36 for a lobster dinner. I asked if that was Belizian (which would be $18us). Nope. Give me my cheap, but delicious, rice and beans from a local joint, or a tamale off the street, and keep your damn lobster. Sigh. It was OK. I could eat for a week in San Ignacio for that price. After dinner I walked out on to the dock. Travis was out there and we started talking and didn’t stop for over two hours. He is a 16 year old kid living in a gang area of Belize City. His uncle is the accountant at the hotel and got him the job so he could pay to go back to school… He has two more years until he graduates. He had it really rough a couple of years ago, stealing and doing bad in school. Even though he turned it around and is trying to do better, his mom and step-dad still don’t trust him. They kicked him out of the house and he’s living with a friend and their parents. His dad had 16 kids, no more than two by any one woman. Travis tried to call him to get help with school, but his dad won’t answer. He joined the Belizian Defense Force, like the national reserves, to earn money. Even working seven days a week, he’s still going to come up short. Here, students have to buy not only supplies, but very expensive books (8 subjects) and uniforms that are custom made! It’s ridiculous! No wonder most drop out after middle school.

This kid is so lost and lonely. He literally has no one. He likes to work on cars and computers. I asked him about his grades. He said he made a deal with himself the year before last to finish in the top ten. He finished seventh. His deal last year was to finish in the top three. He was third. I told him how proud I was of him. He beamed and said, “I’m going to show you something that will make you really proud of me. Don’t go any where, ok?” I agreed, and he said again for me to stay here. He was afraid I’d leave. He ran off and came back with a book bag. He took out a pile of achievement awards and certificates. I went through each one, commenting on how great it was. He was beaming. What 16 year old boy carries around such things? Then he took out a small stack of pictures of him as a small boy. It just broke my heart. I told him how cute he was. He writes love poems. He is a sensitive soul. And no one gives a damn.

So many people in this country with dreams and passions and motivation. So few avenues for them to utilize to tap into that. I am determined to be an avenue. After listening to this child who has seen so much, been through so much, and has still managed to maintain the desire to better himself, I knew what I had to do. I offered to buy his books. No, no, no he said. He couldn’t ask me to do that. I said he didn’t ask. I offered. He said he didn’t want to bother my vacation. I waved back toward the resort and said, “This is not my vacation. I don’t belong to any of it. Helping you is my vacation.” I choked back tears and my voice cracked as I told him of my love for the people of Belize, and how people are being led across my path here for a reason. He is one of them.

It was late. I hugged him and told him goodnight. We agreed that in exchange for books he was going to help me with my creole. He laughed so hard that I would even want to know! I want to know everything. And I’m learning so much not only about Belize, but about myself.

Day 7 Pictures

 

Day 8

 

701am Ambergris Caye Portofino Resort hammock over the water

I awoke to silence. The morning calls from my jungle birds are now just a memory. Any sounds here are drowned out by the air conditioner. I put on a bikini top and shorts and went out to “enjoy the resort”. I tried. I came out here, waded through calf deep water to a hammock, and tried to relax. It lasted about four minutes before I rolled over and peered down into the water, looking for life. I watched a little hermit crab crawl up a piece of sea grass. Then I wanted more. Fuck it. This hammock shit is not my gig. I’m heading down the pier to see if I can find some fish swimming around and maybe some staff to talk to. Maybe someone is from San Ignacio.

1003am chaise lounge under a Palm tree

I have been a prisoner of this resort since I woke up at 6. Stuck. Trapped. Six miles walk to town. Just went to the office and a boat is leaving at 11 for San Pedro. Hallelujah! Freedom! Escape from the narcissistic verbal diarrhea of Lisa. I’m used to being able to get away from her as soon as I wake up and strike up a conversation with someone interesting in town. Here, the only interesting people call me ma’am and are ready to cater to my presumed whims. I do not want to be catered to by the lovely Belizian people like somehow I’m better than them. I wouldn’t engage any of these insipid tourists in conversation if my life depended on it. They disgust me. Oh how I miss my friends calling me Mahree with their creole accent, Miss Mary, or affectionately Maria.

1048am under the dive shop palapa on the portofino pier

Waiting for the boat to deliver me from this place. I’ve been walking along the pier, looking over the edge into the crystal clear water. Lots of yellow snapper. Sargent major damsels, conch, rays, cucumbers, and Atlantic blue tangs. I got to the end and was met by a moray eel about 3 feet long! I squealed out loud! Rare for them to be out during the day. He showed himself to me, and then retreated back into his cave in the rocks. I thanked him. I walked back and got on the lower level. I laid down and stuck my head under the upper level. The snapper here are good size! 10″. I laid there, just my ass and legs protruding for passersby to see, talking to the fish. Telling them how beautiful they are. Greeting them by common name. Had someone been there, they would have had me committed I’m sure! But I’d rather talk to fish than tourists. And then I saw him. A HUGE filefish about 18″! He swam into the shadows of the pier and out of sight before I could get a good look. I waited a bit, but he didn’t return. I thanked the fish, and got up. Proceeded to the other side where I saw a little blue and green parrotfish. And then, from under the pier, my filefish emerged! He was beautiful in the sunlight! Flecks of blue and purple from his side glistened in the sun as he turned, rolled a bit, and looked me straight in the eye. I told him he was beautiful and thanked him. He swam leisurely away.

It’s 11. I’m now on the dock with 7 other people. I’d rather have the captain to myself. I don’t feel comfortable around white people anymore. I can feel their selfishness. Oh god, here come about eight more. Fuck.

1151 San Pedro. Pupuseria El Salvadorensia

I sat in the back of the boat on a small seat behind the captain. Alone. We arrived and I was immediately in the midst of tables full of tourist trinkets, bars, dive shops, and… White people. The pace was fast. I’m scared how Los Angeles is going to feel when I return. The smiles I’m used to on the streets of San Ignacio were absent. It’s not that the locals were rude. I assume they’re just numb to one more white person walking by, like a million others. I needed familiarity. I saw a man locking a building and asked him if he knew of Inland Tours, run by Eric. He thought for a few moments and said no. He directed me to where I could find a map of town, and I thanked him and walked away. I heard him call after me. He did know. I just said the wrong name. It’s inland and sea excursions. I was less than a block away. He gave me directions.

Eric wasn’t in. His nephew was. I said I’d come back. I refuse to pay resort prices for breakfast, so I was starving. I passed a library and decided to go in. I read a bit of the San Pedro Sun newspaper at a table. As I was leaving, I pushed the door and it made a noise and stopped. I heard a giggle behind me. I turned and a young girl, maybe 16,was smiling, as was the lady at the desk. I asked her if she was laughing at me because I pushed a door that had a huge sign that said pull on it. They both laughed and said everyone does it, even them. I was so desperate for local conversation I turned and asked them about a lunch place that wasn’t full of tourists. They said EVERYWHERE is full of tourists (and this is the slow season). I was afraid of that. They told me to go to the Pupuseria and gave me directions off the main street. I found it. Prices were so much more than San Ignacio , 30-50%. I ordered the cheapest stuff. Banana shake, which was banana HEAVEN $1.50us, a small chicken burrito $2.50us, and chips and salsa $2.50us. I figured the burrito would be really small, as there was a large for $5us. Imagine my surprise when it was longer than the plate! Like in a tortilla a little bigger than the biggest ones you can buy at Vons! I ended up taking half of the chips and burrito back with me.

Next stop, Eric. He was in. He smiled so big and hugged me. We talked a bit about the tours he does and I may go snorkeling with him. I have to meet Tuki’s guy first though. I only had 45 minutes before the boat left, and I still had to get groceries.

I asked a man on the street to direct me to a grocery store. It was a few blocks away, but I found it. I got a little bottle of Belizian rum, two packs of my coconut cookies, a pack of crackers, and some cheese for $10 us. They didn’t have any fruit, so I walked a little further to a fruit stand and got a huge papaya and cantaloupe for $6.50us. I miss my market in San Ignacio… I headed back to the boat docks. If I missed the 1pm boat, the next wasn’t until 630! I don’t really like San Pedro and didn’t want to be stuck here. I walked up the beach and saw some men filleting fish. There were three HUGE stingrays eating the leftovers! I jumped in the water and began petting them and feeding them from my fingers. Amazing.

The beach is very small here, just steps from the sidewalk to the shore. There are tables with overpriced tourist trinkets everywhere you look, hawked by pushy salespeople. It’s like Cancun, Mexico, and I don’t like it.

I boarded the boat back to the Portofino, where I took a three hour nap, then sat on the balcony talking to Lisa and drinking rum. I went to bed at nine. Lisa came in a little later and said Travis stopped by. I was sorry I missed him.

Day 8 Pictures

 

Day 9

 

Last full day at the resort, thank god. I have never felt so alone. I can’t talk to the staff during the day because they’re working and I don’t want to get them in trouble. I can’t fish because I have no bait. I don’t want to hang out in the common areas for fear of having to talk to one of these idiot tourists. I hate that I am assumed to be like them. Lisa had been spending time in the pool, talking to people. She asked me if I had talked to anyone. I said, “No, I don’t want to get the staff in trouble.” She seemed incredulous that I would assume she meant the staff, and said, “No! The guests.” I said absolutely not with an obvious air of disgust. She asked why. And I know I offended her when I said that those people hold absolutely zero interest for me because they’re self absorbed and boring (like her). I don’t care. It’s true.

I didn’t want to go to San Pedro again. Coordinating the boat schedule is a pain. So we decided to go snorkeling at Mexico Rocks, not too far off from the resort. The trip didn’t leave until 3 though. Fuck, that’s a lot of time to fill. I asked Lisa if she’d like to walk with me. She said sure, and we headed up the beach. We passed huge beachfront homes. They looked gaudy and tacky to me. I thought of all the good that could be done here with that money. It was hot. One house we passed was empty and had a nice pool outside. Lisa convinced me to go for a dip! I was really scared of getting caught, but the water felt so nice. We swam a few laps and got out, continuing up the beach. We went about a mile and a half and saw a sign that said Mata Grocery Store. What the fuck!? I had asked the captain on the way over if there was a grocery store on this side of the island and he said no! Mother fuckers, trying to keep me and my money prisoner. We turned off the beach and followed the sign. It was stifling. No breeze as soon as we got off the beach. Luckily we only had to walk a couple of blocks. Not only was there a little store, but a restaurant called Aurora’s Grill. A tiny little building, just big enough for a kitchen and a cook, and a few picnic tables in the sand under a huge almond tree. Perfect! I ordered grilled shrimp with rice and beans and cole slaw for $10us. Went in the store and bought a cold Belikin.

What’s better than finding local food? Finding locals! I was laying in a hammock, waiting on my shrimp, and trying to not attract the attention of the table of white tourists next to me. The black guy with dreads and a creole accent who took my order walked over. He said I was so beautiful, that he wanted to take a picture so I could see. Game….dude has it! I handed him my camera. I found out his name was Evan. We talked about Belize, politics especially. I’ve found that the Belizian people are very well informed. After the food was served, Aurora joined us outside. We talked about growth of the tourism industry here. How the past few years their little restaurant (Evan is with Aurora and they have a child) had grown so much they can barely keep up during high season. We all agreed that Belize is on the cusp of an exploding tourism industry. I told them of the infrastructure improvements in San Ignacio. They said things like that are slowly happening everywhere. I told them how the Portofino had told us there was nothing on this side of the island. They said they always do that. Frustrating. I don’t like being lied to.

The food was amazing! The conversation was engaging! I finally felt like I was back in Belize again. After I was finished, Evan came over to take my plate. He said yesterday was his birthday, could he buy me a beer to celebrate. I declined, as one Belikin is good, but two meant I would stumble instead of walk back to the hotel! He laughed and I asked him if he had a birthday cake with candles. He said there were not enough candles in Belize (he was maybe 40). I joked that I would import some for him next year, if I could get that many thru customs. Laughter, easy conversation, and silly jokes…this is my Belize.

I hated to leave this spot and these people. But we had to get back and get ready for our snorkeling trip. We headed back down the beach, stopping again for a cool off break in the fancy house’s swimming pool. Got back to the resort, gathered up our gear, and headed out. I saw Travis, raking the never ending piles of sea grass that washed up. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, so I just said I was going on a snorkel trip and would meet him on the dock around 530.

The guy that took us out, well, I don’t even remember his name. There was little to no interaction. Disappointing. It was just Lisa and I on the trip. She wanted to stop at a place with a sandy bottom so she could swim. Swimming for the sole purpose of swimming bores me. I put on my mask and snorkel and and looked for things. There was one rock I found that had a little purple and yellow damsel guarding it. I followed a small stingray for a bit. That was it for life. I got back in the boat and sat there, staring out at the ocean and thinking of the jungle. We motored over to Mexico Rocks and anchored. I put on my fins and headed to the side of the boat to jump in. The guy said, “Look! There’s a shark.” Sure enough there was a nurse shark about six feet long swimming right next to the boat. Seriously, Mother Nature? Sharks, tsunamis, and tornados are my three biggest fears. I had never snorkeled without my husband before, and first time trying there’s a shark? Brilliant. I had two choices…sit in the boat like a pussy because I was scared and miss out on an adventure, or face it and jump in. It was a nurse shark. I know the chances of being bit are zip unless I cram my hand in its mouth. It’s like the ladder, like the stairs. Mind over matter. I jumped. The shark was swimming about 15 feet from me. It was beautiful.

Mexico Rocks is a ton of huge, coral covered boulders, just inside the barrier reef. I stayed pretty close to what’s his face, because I’m never completely comfortable in the water. There were so many fish! Snapper, wrasses, parrots, damsels, trumpets, tangs, needles, and more. Most were small to medium sized. I saw one huge puffer, maybe 15″. He was hiding in the rocks. I recognized most of the hard coral by scientific name. There were huge brilliant purple sea fans and long gorgonians swaying in the current. It was relaxing and peaceful once I let myself relax. We saw a couple of small nurse sharks in the distance. All in all, it reminded me a lot of snorkeling in Mexico. Enjoyable, but not spectacular. We turned and swam back to the boat and climbed in. No conversation really on the way back. I felt lonely and a little empty. At least I had conversation with Travis to look forward to this evening!

I went in and got cleaned up. Hand washed all of the day’s clothes like I do every evening. I stood on the balcony and looked for Travis, he’s really dark and easy to spot amongst the white tourists and Hispanic staff. He was no where to be seen. I walked down to the end of the dock, peering down to see if I could spot that moray again. No luck, so I headed back. And there was Travis! He was sitting on the lower dock and I hadn’t seen him when I walked by. I immediately plopped down and we started up an easy conversation.

Tonight, he told me a lot more about his life. About abuse at home and school. Neglect- emotional and physical. More about how he planned to better himself. How this kid maintains any sense of self and hope for his future in the midst of this insanity is unreal. And we talked about any 16 year old boy’s favorite subject….girls! There’s one in particular he really likes. He talked about what he wants in a girl and family. This kid has his head on straight. We talked about his view of the US. They get TV from the US. I was trying to tell him that everything you see on TV isn’t real, especially after he said he would never want a girl from America because from what he’s seen on the Lifetime channel, they’re always plotting to kill their man or acting crazy. I about fell off my chaise lounge laughing so hard!

We talked for a couple of hours. It was as if he couldn’t talk enough! I don’t think any adult has ever sat and just listened to him. This was my last night at the Portofino, so we made plans for him to come to San Pedro the next day after work so we could go buy school stuff. We also exchanged email and Facebook information. I really think he was scared I was going to disappear on him. I hugged him goodnight. As I walked to my room, I thought about how similar he is to my own kids in many ways. Yet so different. This kid had crossed my path for a reason, I was sure of it. I think we can both grow from knowing each other.

Day 9 Pictures

 

Day 10

 

I awoke to a friend request on Facebook from Travis. Travis is a religious kid, and I can’t blame him. He needs that. When he asked for my Facebook, I had to have “the talk” with him. That I am an atheist. He seemed pretty shocked, but accepting. I tried to explain how what he thought of as god, I thought of as more of an energy than an entity. I didn’t want to dissuade him from his beliefs, so I was very careful.

I have never been so ready to leave somewhere in my life! I spent much of the morning in bed, journaling to pass the time until noon when the boat left for San Pedro. Then I sat in the hammock on the balcony for a while. Why people stay here and pay all that money to do nothing blows my mind. It was driving me insane. After what seemed forever, it was 1130. I got my bags and headed to the dock.

It was a quick 15 minute ride to San Pedro. The captain put us in a taxi to go to our condo, Paradise Villas. The office was closed! It was so hot out and we were weighed down with all of our luggage. We sat on a bench under a palm tree trying to get some shade. A white man approached and started talking. He owned a condo in the building and said the office was out to lunch. He and his partner (I do not remember their names) were going to go have lunch, and if we wanted we could put our luggage in their unit and go with them. Had it been anyone else, I would have sat there and let Lisa go. But they were a gay couple, living in Texas none the less, so I knew they were interesting!

We walked down a dock right behind the condos. At the end was a restaurant called Wet Willy’s. Oh lord. It was tourist cheesy to the max. T-shirts from all over the United States were hung from the rafters, autographed by the idiot tourists who donated them. Banners from college football teams were there, too. There was a Texas A&M one even. There was nothing about this place that was Belize and I wanted out. Trapped again, I ordered coconut shrimp and almost died from sticker shock. At least the guys were interesting. They had owned their condo for ten years, and had seen San Pedro change a lot. I could only imagine.

We went back and the office was open. Got the keys to our ocean front unit for $139 a night. It was so much nicer than the Portofino! Nice full kitchen, nice bathroom, big bedroom, nice living room. I told Lisa she could have the bedroom and I’d take the Murphy bed in the living room. I unpacked and was eager to explore. I headed out to find groceries. As I walked through the grounds to get to the back gate, a little girl about 8 was walking with a little boy about 5. She was one bubbly little spitfire! Her name was Michele, and she led me to her grandfather’s fruit and veggie stand, where I bought an avocado and onion to make guacamole with later. She told me where to find the grocery store, her grandfather told me where to find bait, and I headed out in the direction away from town. I quickly found the liquor store /bait shop and struck up a conversation with the owner. He said there are more fishermen than fish in San Pedro and I’d be better off waiting until I got to Caye Caulker. Sigh. I continued walking and found a tamale stand! Hallelujah! I bought six chicken ones for $7 us. I then came across a bakery with some tasty looking desserts in the window. Grabbed a couple of things and then went to the grocery store to get water. This end of the town felt much more local than where I had been a couple of days before.

I dropped everything off at the condo and headed out to go find Eric and plan a snorkeling trip to Hol Chan for tomorrow. He was happy to see me, and scheduled us for tomorrow at 1pm. I explored town a little. Hustle, bustle, busy, crowded, golf carts, cars, tourists. I had to get out of here. I went back to the condo and took a nap. I was basically biding time until 5, when Travis was taking the boat over.

At 430, I started a leisurely walk down the beach to the dock where Travis would arrive. I sat at the edge of the dock, near the shore. A little Belizian girl about four with a blow up floatie around her waist said, “hi!”. The kids here are just so awesome. She was standing on the edge, looking down at the water. I asked her if she was going to jump. She said yes, but I could see that she was a little scared. We talked about how far down it was, how deep the water was, etc… After we talked, she stood crouched at the edge, toes hanging over the side. She hesitated. I said, “One…… Two……. Three!” to encourage her, and she jumped, landing with a huge splash! She turned around and grinned at me. In a few moments, she was back up on the dock next to me. “Count!”, she said excitedly, and I did, and she jumped. I took a video and showed her. Then I had to video each of half a dozen other jumps and show them to her before the next could commence. She was having so much fun, and so was I.

A boat pulled up and I saw a bunch of Portofino staff walk past me. After a few moments, I saw Travis walking toward me. He had his finger to his mouth in the shhhhhhh position, so I just at there and continued looking out over the ocean. After a few minutes he came back. His manager had been on his case all day, even bringing something up about me and my offer to buy him books (someone had overheard us talking), and she assumed he was begging guests for money. I was PISSED. I told him I’d call over there and set them straight. He said no, and he was right. I told him it was time to get books, and we walked the streets of San Pedro together toward ANR, where he said they should have everything. Lord only knows what everyone thought! This white (clear as Travis calls it) woman walking with this dark boy. It was the one time I can say I didn’t care what the locals thought about me.

We reached the store, and Travis started up a conversation in creole with a young guy who worked there. I could make out that he was asking him for books for third form (his grade, like our 11th grade). No books here. So we got a basket and headed for the school supplies. He was trying to get the cheapest of everything. I know he loves fast cars (the fast and the furious is his favorite topic!) and there were some notebooks with things like Ferraris and Lamborghinis on them. No, he said, too expensive, and he started picking out plain covered notebooks. He was tentative at first, but soon he was getting into the groove and having fun picking out the things he needed. I would joke and ask him if he wanted a Hannah Montana lunch box or if he needed crayons. We were laughing up a storm! Once he was comfortable, I again pointed out the notebooks with the cars. “Are you sure you don’t want any of these? They’re really cool…..” He picked out three.

Our hand held basket was overflowing! We sat it down and went upstairs. This is where the back packs were. He immediately went to one that was black and red…his favorite colors. He showed me all of the neat features on it he liked, as if he was trying to convince me of its necessity. I knew he had been eyeing this bag for a long time. I told him if that was what he wanted, then get it. He grinned so big, and asked the staff member in Spanish to get one off the shelf for him. It was fascinating to watch this kid flow so easily between English, creole, and Spanish. He said he spoke some Chinese as well, as all the grocery stores are owned by Chinese here.

We went back downstairs. I asked him if there was anything else he needed, and would point out things asking do you need this or do you need that. He stopped me in the middle of an aisle and asked if I noticed the people looking at us. Fuck. I must be doing some obnoxious loud American thing I was unaware of. He said no. That people here were not used to hearing someone ask a kid to just get everything they needed, and that’s why they were looking at us. He then told me that this was the first time anyone had taken him shopping for school supplies!!! I asked him how he had gotten supplies in the past. He said the night before school started, his mother would come in with a bag of supplies for him and his siblings. Some stuff he needed, but most he didn’t. He never had all of the supplies he needed. And now he did. This kid kills me.

We checked out. It was over $100us. A computer caught Travis’ eye on a table behind us. He asked the guy in creole what it was. The store was raffling it off on August 30, and you could get a ticket for each $40 you spent. We had spent a little over $200 Belizian, so I said we needed five tickets. Travis filled out each one so carefully. He was so excited about the idea of winning it. If there is a god, he will.

We walked down the street toward another store the guy said might have books. They didn’t. Travis then wanted me to meet his friend, Richard, that worked at cellular world. They spoke in creole and I knew Travis was telling him about me and buying school stuff. And I could tell he was proud, not bragging. I suggested that we go drop everything off at the condo and go eat. Lisa wanted to come along too, so we went to a more locals kind of place on middle street. There’s front street, which is the tourist street, middle street, which is a little tourist stuff but mainly locals, and back street which is pretty much all local stuff. I call them expensive street, less expensive street, and cheapest street! We sat down and I told Travis to order anything he wanted. He got a stewed chicken dish. I shared lobster nachos with Lisa. Mid way through the meal Travis kind of scooted his chair back, put his head in his heads, and said out loud, “I just can’t believe this.” I said believe what. He said he couldn’t remember the last time he ate in a restaurant, and getting school stuff too, it was just so hard to believe. I told him to believe it and finish his dinner or he wouldn’t get dessert. He thought that was funny. He ate every thing on his plate, and all of Lisa’s salad that she didn’t finish.

Lisa went back to the condo and Travis and I walked around town and talked. We stopped so he could get a ticket on the 1030pm Coastal Express boat back to the Portofino. $5.50us, I paid. We walked in the dark along the shore back to the condo. His tone got very serious, and he told me this story. That a week ago when he was raking, he found $5 bz. He looked in the trashcans for money after that. He was working seven days a week and was still going to come up a little short. He prayed every day that he would find a way to make enough money to pay for school. And then I came along. I looked at him and said, “Yep, God sent an atheist!” He looked at me oddly for a moment and said yeah, then burst out laughing. I said God works in mysterious ways. He said, “You know that?” I said I know a lot of things and we walked into the condo.

We all talked for a while. Travis got his school stuff organized so he could easily carry it on the boat. I gave him the receipt in case he needed to return anything or someone accused him of stealing it. I then insisted on writing a note explaining everything in case anyone questioned if he had asked me to help. I made it clear in the note that I approached him and would be very angry if anyone at the portofino have him trouble over it. He said when he got back to his room, he was going to take everything out and look at it and smell it! Silly kid! He said he’d try to come tomorrow night, but didn’t know if he could. I told him I hoped to see him, gave him a hug, and he walked off to the dock.

Day 10 Pictures

 

Day 11

 

I want to go back to the jungle to my friends.

This morning required killing time until 1, when the snorkeling trip to Hol Chan would leave. I wandered around town for a while, did some journaling, and took a nap. At 1230, we gathered up our gear and walked to Eric’s office. He gave us an awesome discount since I know Carlos. In us dollars, it’s normally $35 for the trip plus 12.5%tax, plus $10 park fee (it’s in a national marine reserve). He gave it to us for $40 total. He didn’t have to do that.

I was kind of bummed to see that the boat was packed. We had about 11 other people. It was a quick 15 minutes to Hol Chan. Where we anchored was a sandy bottom about 4 feet deep. I jumped in and started swimming around. Big Jacks, about a foot long, swam right up to me, but stayed just out of reach. I saw a big nurse shark about twenty feet away and got a sick pleasure out of standing up and announcing excitedly to the tourists, “There’s a big shark over there!” with a sweet smile on my masked face. Some of them noticeably flinched. Mission accomplished.

There were so many people, we split into two groups. Our leader took us toward a boat that had a HUGE black grouper hanging out just underneath the hull. Like about 4 feet long! He was so majestic. A few feet further, there was a green sea turtle lazily feeding on sea grass. There were some BIG snapper. That’s what I noticed about this place compared to Mexico Rocks…all of the fish were bigger and many more species because this was a marine reserve and no fishing was allowed.

Hol Chan means cup in Mayan. Here, there is a natural channel in the barrier reef about 80-100 feet wide. As we approached, the bottom went from 10′ to about 30′, with reef on either side from top to bottom. I said WOW through my snorkel because it was so amazing! I have never had the desire to scuba, but this made me want to! There were big snapper, some solitary and some in huge schools, grouper, angelfish, parrot fish, and more. Coral everywhere. We swam the channel opening down one side, then crossed, and swam up the other side. It was mesmerizing. By far the best reef snorkel I have ever done.

All to soon we were back in shallow water, with Jacks teasingly swimming just out of reach. We came across the turtle again, and the huge grouper, then we were climbing back into the boat. We took off for the next stop – shark and ray alley. As we pulled into the area, you could see the water literally boiling with large nurse sharks next to the boats. They were chumming the water. Our boat anchored and the guys started throwing fish over. I have no idea what got into me, but I jumped in without hesitation. Half the people stayed in the boat. About 20 nurse sharks between four to six feet were in a huge writhing ball at the surface, trying to get a piece of fish. I could reach out and pet their sandpaper bodies. The Jacks were so engrossed in catching a piece of food, I could even touch them. I didn’t stay in for the whole time, because the guys said once the fish run out, the sharks leave, and I wanted to get on board and get some pictures and video.

The boat sped back across blue waters to San Pedro. We walked back to the condo and showered. I was starving! All that swimming really takes it out of you. We waited to see if Travis would show up until 520, then walked down towards the dock. No Travis. Part of me wondered if he had gotten what he wanted and was done with me. I hate that part of me. We found a chocolate shop and decided to go in. Oh my god, it smelled like heaven!! I just stood there inhaling for a few moments. I picked out a banana caramel covered with milk chocolate, a peanut butter cup, and a cookie that was swirled with chocolate. Lisa and I had dinner at a beachfront restaurant so we could see Travis if he walked by. After, we ate our dessert. The peanut cup was nothing to write home about, but the banana caramel was out of this world and the cookie was amazing.

We walked down front street and there were a lot of souvenir vendors with tables set up. I walked through about a dozen booths of the same thing….jewelry… Run by the same people….Guatemalans. Boring. Then I got to a table run by a Rastafarian man that had something unique! Little cups and things made from bamboo. I hadn’t seen anything like that anywhere else. There was also jewelry. I said I was looking for two shark tooth necklaces, and would rather buy them from a Belizian than a Guatemalan. He said he could run home and make them for me! I told him exactly what I wanted.

While I waited, I sat and talked to Ruben. A young, quiet man with long, dreads tucked into an oversized knit cap. He was the one that made the bamboo pieces. Marlon returned with two perfect and beautiful necklaces, and I also bought a bamboo cup that had fish and the word Belize carved into it. Marlon and I talked about how hard it was for local artists to compete with the junk from Guatemala. How he was trying to organize the native Belizian artists so they could have their own area to promote their art. But he said things move slow. He also said that because he is dark and a true practitioner of the Rastafarian religion (it’s so much more than reggae and weed), that people treat his kind like animals. That sentence hung in the air and penetrated me to the core. It was the same kind of thing Travis had been saying, but this was blunt and to the point. I told him I wanted to help him, what could I do? He needs a website. That’s easy. He gave me his card and I promised to come back the next day and talk more.

We got back to the condo about 830. There, sleeping on the porch, was Travis. I asked him when he had gotten there, and he said about six – he couldn’t get the first boat out. I asked him if he had eaten and he said no, so I went in and heated up two large tamales and put three of my coconut cookies on the plate. He ate the cookies first. Yes, he could be my son! After he ate, we went inside to sit in the air conditioning. We sat on the couch and talked. Lots about life, school, and girls. At one point he said he wanted to give me something. He reached into his bag and pulled out the little stack of photos from when he was a child and handed one to me. I was touched beyond words. These photos mean so much to him….This 16 year old young man looks so different, but the innocent and hopeful heart of that boy in the picture is still there. We hugged and said goodbye. I told him I hoped he could come back tomorrow for our last night. He said he’d try.

Day 11 Pictures

 

Day 12

 

I found San Pedro this morning. It exists between the hours of about 7-745am. I walked out of the condo and turned in the opposite direction from town, heading to the little tamale stand to get some breakfast. It was closed, but I decided to continue walking, as the sun was still low and there was a nice breeze. The narrow street was lined with the houses and businesses of locals. Instead of the constant roar and exhaust of golf carts filled with white idiots, there were locals, on foot or bikes. And they smiled at me! And they said hello and good morning sincerely! I never wanted this street to end. I only saw two other white people, older men who were obviously expats. I averted my glance from them. I walked and walked until I reached the bridge. I crossed it. I peered down into the crystal clear water below and saw a school of about 20 snapper. In the midst of them, trying to belong, was a puffer. He stood out easily, rounded body instead of laterally compressed, and mottled spots instead of silver, but seemed to be accepted by the snapper as they all slowly turned in unison. I am the puffer. Which just so happens to be my favorite fish…

I headed back. About halfway through, I started seeing golf carts driven by tourists. The smiles and greetings from locals were further and further apart. The sun was higher and it was hot. San Pedro was melting away before my eyes. It was transforming back into a tourist town. I wanted to cast a spell and make it stop. I had found Belize again, and I didn’t want it to slip away.

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I went in to town later in the morning to find Marlon. He wasn’t there yet. I came back to the condo and decided to nap under a palm tree. There wasn’t much for me in this town. After I woke up, I headed back down to look for Marlon. When he saw me, he smiled warmly. We talked of how he needed to promote his art. How he had 17 acres of land in the jungle next to a Mayan village in Toledo district, down south. He was trying to develop it into a campground for backpackers, with the goal of using that money to further develop a little hotel. I asked him a lot of questions and gave him some ideas on improvements for the campground that he seemed excited about. I made it clear that I had no cash to invest, but would trade skills and necessities. He said that’s the best way to do things. He said that I really got him to thinking about things differently. That he had been hoping someone like me would come along, because he didn’t understand technology very well. He also has land in my jungle, in Cayo. I think there’s a good opportunity here to trade skills for a little land… He said when I come back at Christmas, he’ll take me to Toledo district. I can take pictures and videos and give him ideas on improving his property. I told him about Carlos. How Americans want things made easy for them and we should see about setting up packages. He was excited about that idea. While I was there, he sold three different pieces. He said I was bringing him good luck. He was bringing me hope. Hope that with enough strong connections all over the country, that I could really make a go of it here.

602pm San Pedro at Island Barber Shop

My adopted son, Travis, took the boat over from the Portofino for the third and last night in a row. He was helping the captain tie up the boat, and a wave caught it and crunched his hand between the boat and dock. Scraped him up pretty good and hurt his thumb. Lisa made a fuss over him, getting ice. I made him wash his hands. He couldn’t believe we were doing all of that. He spoke of more abuse that I won’t write about because I don’t want to think of it.

He’s said a few times that his hair is high (that means long). So I had a surprise for him. I asked if he’d like to get a hair cut. The amazement that crosses this kid’s face when I do something so simple for him is both heart breaking and heart warming. We walked to the barber shop. He asked me if he could have a design cut in his hair. I said do whatever you want. He explained to the barber in creole, and is sitting in the chair now. They spoke about me in creole a bit, but I couldn’t understand all of it. He explained about me helping him with school. I can’t imagine a white woman brings a black kid in for a haircut too often around here…

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$7.50us for the exact cut he wanted. Money well spent to boost this kid’s confidence. He was so excited with the way it turned out. This kid, who normally didn’t want me to take his picture, was posing up a storm and asking for me to take lots of pics. He wanted a good one for Facebook. Apparently the girls really like this kind of haircut.

We went back to the condo to get Lisa for dinner. We headed to a local place on middle street. I told Travis to get whatever he wanted. He got a cantaloupe juice, chicken burrito (I had had one here a couple of days ago and told him it was great) and a chicken quesadilla. He ate all of it, saying how good the burrito was especially, and ate the rest of Lisa’s. The boy has a healthy appetite!

We went back to the condo. Travis and I sat outside talking. He was telling me jokes in creole to see if I could understand them. I could most of it! He would have me repeat words and phrases, always telling me to quit drawing them out, say them faster. I then decided to make him a deal. I told him that when I had something mind blowing to tell my students, that I would have them hold their head. I put my hands on my head to show him and told him to do the same. He did. I said, “Travis, if you finish first in your class one semester, and no lower than second for the next semester, I’ll fly you to LA for a week.” This kid came unglued! He had finished third in his class last year (he had shown me the report card), and said he could definitely do it!

We sat there laughing and talking until the alarm went off. 10pm. Time to go catch the boat. He got his things together slowly. He walked out the door, with me behind me, and said, “I want to cry but I’m not.” I told him he better not, because he’d get me started and he knows how I am! We hugged. Tight. It was time to leave this boy and hope that somehow he would have a place to live and enough money to get by. And that he would stay in school despite every odd against him.

Day 12 Pictures

 

Day 13

 

I convinced Lisa to take the 930 boat to Caye Caulker instead of the 1pm one. I wanted out of San Pedro. I could see why the tourists love it here so much and it’s the number one destination…. It’s as close to home as possible. What’s the fucking point?

We boarded and raced south. About 20 minutes later we arrived. I was a little disoriented when we got on the dock. A golf cart taxi driver (no cars on this island) was standing there and asked us where we were going. I said sea dreams hotel. He said that was about a mile away. We climbed in. Our driver’s name was Celvis. He pointed out different things as we drove through town. There were quite a few tourists, but nothing like the insanity of San Pedro. There was a much more laid back vibe here. I liked it. We arrived at the hotel, and Celvis said he could give us a tour of the whole island of we liked. I got his card.

We checked in at sea dreams. The room was tiny, with two twin beds, a small refrigerator, and a decent sized bathroom. No closet, so I just put my bags under the bed. I gave the front desk the flash drives I brought over for the local high school they support. They were so thankful. Lisa and I walked to the split to see if we could find some food. The split is basically a channel that was created when a category 5 hurricane ripped through here in 1961. It literally split the island in two, with a channel that’s about 100 yards wide. Whoever owned that beach front property must have been a sad panda indeed!

We followed the sounds of reggae, and were soon at an awesome little beach bar palapa. It was early, a little after 10, and the chef wasn’t there yet. We sat at the bar, had rum punch, and soaked up the really cool, laid back vibe. Some locals were fishing, and I walked up and started talking to them. Lots of red snapper here usually, they said, but fishing is better early in the morning or evening. One said he caught a big barracuda here yesterday. I asked if they were good to eat and he said very. I was itching to get bait and tackle!

The vibe started to change about 1045. Tourists started flooding in. One woman brought a yappy ass Yorkie that would not shut up. Lisa got a little snippy with her, and then asked me if I thought she was too mean about it. I told her I couldn’t care less about anything she said to a tourist, just don’t be rude to the locals.

Finally the chef got there a little after 11. I was starving! I saw him write all of the standard seafood fare on the board… Shrimp, lobster… Then he wrote something interesting… BARRACUDA STEAK! Oh hell yes! It came with rice and beans (everything here revolves around rice and beans!) and omg it was FANTASTIC! Seasoned perfectly, very garlicky, and oh so fresh tasting. The portion was huge and only $10us. I wished I had another stomach so I could have eaten two.

Lisa wanted to hang here, but too many tourists were flooding in. I had to get away. I went to the front desk and asked Anna to call Celvis. No answer. I asked if she knew someone else that could do a tour, and she called someone named Peter. He arrived in about 10 minutes. I hopped in the golf cart, more excited to have a local to myself than to see the island.

Peter and I spent about an hour and a half together, going up and down practically every sand-packed street as he pointed out interesting landmarks. He told me lots were going for about $100,000us! I asked him how in the world could the locals afford that. He said they couldn’t. Priced out of their own country. Sad. As we talked, I found out that Peter is 100% Mayan. He used to lead horseback rides at Mountain Pine Ridge in Cayo. I asked him if he knew Maria Garcia, the woman who made jewelry, and he did! I loved finding connections back to my jungle.

I told him I wanted to fish and he showed me some good spots, then took me to get bait. We pulled into the driveway of a house with a hand painted sign out front that said “bait for sale”. $2 us for a bag full of sardines. We then went to a little tackle shop, and Peter picked me out the right sized hooks and sinkers. I was set! The last stop was the best. He pulled up to a house on the back side of the island. He got a bag of fish from the lady. We walked down a small dock on the side of a shady cove, surrounded by mangroves. There in the dark, shallow water were about two dozen tarpon! Some almost four feet long! Peter threw the fish in and the tarpon sprung into action! It was so awesome! They were big, fast, sleek, and beautiful! I could have stayed there for a long time.

Back at the room, I couldn’t sit still for long. I walked to town to get a close up view of all of the little shops. My directional ocd kicked in, and I made my way up the right side of the street, telling the vendors on the left side that were trying to get my attention that I’d catch them on the way back. One thing I noticed here was that the majority of the street vendors selling art and trinkets were Belizians. That put me in a buying mood! I stopped at a little table tended by an old woman that Peter had pointed out as Mayan. She had the exact thing I had been looking for! And she only had one…a little clay pot to burn herbs in. I paid for it and asked her to hold it until I came back. It was a delicate piece and I didn’t want to break it. I continued down the street and found another thing I’d been wanting- a little palm container for coconut oil. If you bought two local pieces, you got 15% off, so I added a carved fish soap dish.

I reached the end of the street, crossed, and headed back down the other side. In between the tables set up to sell things, there were lots of “tourist fare” food shops in addition to all of the regular restaurants. Ice cream, coffee, juice bars, smoothies. And lots of tour operators as well, offering the same things as those in San Pedro. As I walked back toward the hotel, I saw a Rastafarian man that reminded me of Marlon sitting next to a booth with a lot of painted art canvasses. Marlon had told me his brother lived on Caye Caulker, but didn’t tell me anything else other than he was a very smart man. I couldn’t not ask, so I walked up and said, “Please don’t think I’m crazy, but I have to ask this… Do you know Marlon Usher?”. He said yes, Marlon was his brother! Crazy! We talked for a while, and then I continued on. Belize is a small country…..

It was getting close to 630. I walked to the back side of the island and watched the most amazing sunset. I could see the sun join and melt into the sea, watching it until the very last drop off molten orange disappeared. It was breathtaking. And now, it was time to do what I had been waiting weeks for…. FISH!

I went to the room, gathered up my rod and reel, bait and tackle, and headed to the split. I was so excited to get down there, I didn’t even change out of my dress. No one else was fishing at the split. I was a little disappointed, as I was hoping to hang with some locals and get not only some fishing tips, but a dose of that Belizian warmth I had grown to crave. I extended my telescoping pole, attached the reel, ran the line thru the eyes, and attached the sinker and hook. I hadn’t done this in years, and it felt right and good. I took the huge butcher knife I borrowed from the hotel kitchen and cut the first sardine into one inch chunks like Peter had told me to do. First cast, smooth as buttah! Went about 25 feet out into the split. I let it sit, and sit. Nothing. I waited probably a full 45 seconds (I’ve never been accused of being a patient fisherwoman!) and slowly reeled it back in. I was met by my little chunk of sardine. I cast again. Wham! Immediate strike! God, there is nothing like that adrenaline you get from a fish biting, except for actually catching one! But I’ve always enjoyed the chase… I didn’t mind feeding a few fishes while I waited. I put on another chunk of sardine and cast again. Within seconds, wham! Another bite, and another free meal. I looked at the dark water and wondered what was under there playing with me…

A couple more of the same thing, and then I heard a voice. “Catching anything?” The creole accent made my heart leap! I said I was getting bites, but nothing caught yet. A young man with dreads introduced himself as Shawn, and we started talking fish. He asked how I was baiting the hook. I showed him and he said that should work. This time I had put on a sardine head, hooked through the eyes. I cast and asked Shawn if that was a good place. No sooner did he say yes then WHAM! A really hard hit! And a couple turns of the reel let me know it wasn’t just a hit, but it was hooked! A few more turns let me know it was something pretty damn big! Shawn was cheering me on and I was reeling as hard as I could, but losing ground. Shawn took the pole and worked on landing Moby Dick. As he fought the fish, the reel handle broke in his hand. We stood there looking at each other, stunned as the line ran out. There was nothing to do but cut it. I lost my fish, lost my reel, lost my plans for the next morning and evening all within a few seconds. Normally I would be pissed and rant and rave about getting my money back for the reel. Instead, Shawn and I talked for a while. He asked what I was doing later, I said I’d be asleep later as I rarely stay up past 930. We parted ways and I headed back to the room, a little disappointed that my fishing was over, but more happy about the experience in general. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a barracuda taking revenge on me for lunch!

Day 13 Pictures

 

Day 14

 

636am sea dreams dock on caye caulker

I woke to a Facebook message from Travis, telling me in creole that he was just chilling. I knew he missed me. I missed him, too.

I didn’t sleep well for the first time last night. The knowledge that this is my last day is heavy on my heart. I don’t want to leave. I’m trying to come up with a way not to. But I know I have to finish out the school year, work on my business plan, and come back next summer completely prepared for the move. As I look out over the blue water, completely alone except for a school of small fish swimming beside me, I realize that I am at peace. With my surroundings and myself. I don’t know if that is something I’ve ever really felt. I know all of my problems are not solved, all of my fears are not quelled, but they are diminished in this place to a point where they are no longer my focus. I can focus on bigger things now, better things. Things outside of myself. The culmination of the work I have been doing on myself for the past almost exactly seven years is right here.

754am rooftop at sea dreams

I’m having a breakfast of eggs, bacon, bagel, and fruit which is included with the room. It’s so American. My heart is getting heavier and heavier, and I’m constantly fighting this lump in my throat. Tears just boil up out of no where. Glad I have my sunglasses. This last hour has been tough. I’m going to get a bicycle and ride away to the remote parts of the island. Parts where tourists are rare. I need a friend today. I wish I could call Carlos and talk business, or have David come over and talk about horses and life in his gentle way. If I can’t get a hold on this and get focused, LA is going to crush me when I return.

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I decided a bike had too many limitations, so I walked all the way to South Point this morning. Almost six miles round-trip. I procured a nice little blister from my flip flops, but I needed to be away from the tourists. I walked down the main street which was empty of white flesh tinged various shades of pink and red. They were still recovering from last night’s hangovers or enjoying the ability to sleep in. I was enjoying the feel of the island without them. The locals were friendly and saying hi and good morning as I passed. Just as Travis (and basically all Belizians) slip effortlessly between languages, these locals slip between their genuine selves and what they have to be for the tourists.

I walked and walked, through streets lined with the houses of those who call this island home. I passed by a little overgrown area that had a sign stating it was a reserve. I stepped on to a trail under a canopy of thick trees. I immediately recalled my jungle, and even recognized some of the plants. Creatures would rustle through the dried palm leaves that covered the ground as I passed, causing me to jump. I liked that they had that power over me. I followed the circular trail all the way around, and then stepped back into civilization. I continued past the airstrip that I would revisit in the morning. Through a cemetery. Iguanas eyed me warily as I passed and told them good morning. I finally reached the end of South point and the last dock on the island. I walked down it. I was pretty sweaty and had planned on stripping down to my skivvies and going for a swim, but there were no stairs to get back up, and climbing through the muck and mire and mangroves didn’t seem very appealing. So I sat, staring at a tiny distant island and marveling at the intense turquoise strips of water between me and there. I thought about Belize. I thought about my friends and how I could help them. I thought about Travis and how I was determined to get this kid to graduate in two years. I thought about LA and how there is nothing there for me anymore. There’s nothing real about that existence, it’s just a fake veneer shored up by society. A society I have always shunned.

Usually I eat a meal with Lisa. Today, I avoided her completely. She had said some things in the morning that she and her little tourist friends had discussed – the fake kindness of the locals. Those idiots wouldn’t know genuine kindness from their fucking ass holes. I think she was jealous of my easy rapport with the Belizeans every where we went. She commented on it a few times, sometimes snidely. I think she’s used to being the center of attention because she makes herself that way. These people see that and keep their distance. But for some reason they gravitate to me and I to them. I like to think it’s because we both are looking beyond the surface and seeing each other’s true spirit.

By the time I walked the three miles back to the hotel, I was drenched. I went for a quick swim in the ocean, and then took a nap. I woke up ready for lunch, and headed back to town. I had roasted pig in the ground on my mind…. It ended up not being as tasty as it looked, and I regretted not having my last meal at a seafood place. I walked back to the far side of town and looked in some shops. I remembered I had promised someone a postcard, so I got one, walked all the way back to the hotel to get the address, then all the way back to the far end of town to the post office. $.15us to mail it. Cheaper than if I had mailed it from my house. All in all, I was up to about 8 miles for the day. I swam again with the locals, steering clear of the beautiful, but tourist infested, split. The shrieks of dark skinned children as they did back flips off the dock made me smile. It was pure happiness.

Sadness got a hold on me again as I walked back to the room. I showered, and decided to just put on my pajamas and stay in. It was about 6, and I did want to watch the sunset, but I didn’t want to share it with anyone. I knew I’d cry as I watched the sun sink beneath the ocean for the last time. I crawled into bed and spent the last few hours of the day journaling. My mind was uneasy. I set the alarm for 5am and went to sleep.

Day 14 Pictures

 

Day 15

 

519am sitting outside of sea dreams hotel

I didn’t sleep hardly at all. I checked my phone in the wee hours and there was a message from Travis. They fired him. Fuck. I went outside as soon as there was a hint of light. The streets of town were empty. I stood there, staring down them, trying to reconcile this image with the one of these same streets filled with tourists. Then I stood at the water’s edge and watched the sun ascend. Now I’m sitting outside, waiting for Peter to pick us up in his golf cart taxi. I hear him coming.

647am Belize international airport

We took a tiny plane over. Less than a 10 minute flight. They didn’t even ask for a ticket, just asked if we already paid and our yes was our boarding pass. Trust. Probably the last time someone will honestly trust me until I return. So now I sit and wait. I don’t feel like I’m going home. Los Angeles now feels as foreign to me as this place did two weeks ago. I’ve already had to interact with idiot tourists, and I hate them. I’m going to hate everyone in la. I know it. That city holds no magic for me anymore. I can finally see it for what it is. Shallow, fake, self serving. People with everything who have nothing. I want no part of it. The things and people there that once captivated me are now deconstructed and seen for what they are. Foundationless. Just a facade of life. Nothing anchors anything or anyone. They float aimlessly, searching for the next trend, the next distraction, the next obsession….whatever can numb them from the fact that none of those things are filling that void inside. I’ve lived that way for far too long. Here, for the first time in my life, I met genuine people. People who treated me with kindness and respect, not to get something from me, but because they are whole people. And being around whole people makes me want to be whole, too.

719am delta gate at Belize international airport

Security took my Belize juice. They took my Belize rum. They took my precious cahune oil I bought in the jungle. Back to the life of take, take, take. I’m sitting here wondering how I will survive back in LA. Will I be able to stay focused? To not get sucked back up in the machine? Or will I succumb to what is easy and familiar?

912am on board delta flight, waiting for take off

No. No no no no no. I am immediately awash in everything I now hate. A woman with lips, ass, and tits, bought and paid for with money that could put a few kids through school. An idiot couple behind me taking about some ridiculous American TV show. Fuck these people. I’m checking out. I have been alone most of the past two weeks. And most of the month before that. It has felt good. I can do it for the next 10 months. I’m going to focus on how I can help my friends. My business plans.

Everything I came here seeking, I did not find. I had two meetings set up before I left and blew them both off. I found more. I found the last pieces of myself that I have been gathering together the past several years. Pieces I thought were forever lost and irretrievable. Who knew they were hidden deep in a jungle cave? Who knew they spoke creole? Who knew they were dark skinned? Belize did, and it’s why it has been calling me for the last six years. I’m glad that for once, I listened.