Thursday, November 27, 2008

Land of Maya

On the weekend, when school wasn´t in session, we took the saturday morning lancha to Flores and got on a bus for Tikal. The hour and a half drive took us around the lake and then through the entrance to the park, driving deeper into the rainforest. We found our hotel there, one of 3 places to stay at the park.

In order for our ticket to be viable the next day, we had to purchase it after 4pm. So we went to the edge of the forest for a look. Spider monkeys came into the trees above. We watched them use prehensile tails to swing and hold onto branches while eating leaves. Then, they sat embracing-- little monkey hands wrapped around each other´s backs, and groomed each other. I think when I´m home I´ll wish they were swinging in the trees overhead in Forest Park.

So at 4:30 we headed into the park, with only an hour before nightfall. We hoofed it in, past huge ceiba trees, known of the tree of life to the maya. Howler monkeys called out in the distance. We were just talking about how we didn´t really believe that the ruins existed when around the bend a gigantic tower rose in front of us. We entered the grand plaza in awe. No tourists due to the late hour and the silence played heavily on the scene. One of those magical places on the planet. We climbed the stone steps and sat gazing on what the maya created. Each temple 50 years to build, by thousands of hands. All the buildings in sight were restored but black with algae and disuse of centuries. Amazing to think that when they were rediscovered, all were just mountains with temples inside. One of the temples they left as is, covered with trees old and wide and just a glimpse of a human structure poking from the top of the mountain.

We journeyed on to temple 5, on the eastern edge of the complex. It was getting dark but as we climbed to the top you could see the jungle spread out below us, and temples peering our from over the trees. Like climbing a cascade peak, getting over the clouds, and seeing the peaks of other volcanoes poking out. Just us, a handful of others, and a man with a shotgun. Lucas and I joked that it seemed a little unneccesary to shoot tourists who touch things they´re not supposed to, but the guards are there to protect us. Tikal is still at times a lawless place, hard to defend from forces that want to destabilize the park. Tropical sunsets are fast and before we knew it, it was dark. We walked back out of the park, training our eyes to see. Happy to be greeted by the light of our hotel, and a full restaurant of other tourists.

Up at dawn to catch the sunrise up on top of the temple. Such a great time to be in the park-- with no other people around it feels even more like you´re walking through a ghost town of unknown purpose and demise. We climbed the steepest of the towers and ate our cheese sandwiches. Our legs quaking as we sat on the steep precipice. ¿How did the maya climb these, much less build them? Two kinds of toucans and many parrots in the forest canopy. So many Indiana Jones scenes--an actual minature scale model of the city was found in one of the temples. Hardwoods used to build the palaces thousands of years ago, still strong and viable. The amazing astronomy that went into construction and placement of the temples. Equinoxes and solstices filling each building with light and sending it on to the next temple aligned.

Nice to return back to San Andres after the trip to dinner with Alma, and bed amid church songs and marimba.


You know that scene in the first Matrix movie, where Keanu is strapped to a chair, has a cable plugged into his brain, and after a few seconds states, ´Whoa. I know Karate.´? This last week sorta felt like that. Even though classes with Esdras only lasted four hours a day, he put me through the ringer and I was exhausted by lunchtime. Thank God siestas are the norm. I feel like I now have a rough sketch of the whole painting -- I don´t have any vocabulary, and I take up to eight minutes to conjugate a given verb, but I have a sense now. I´m still pretty useless in day-to-day spanish, though. Esdras was a ´gordo´, as my homestay host describes, but knows his stuff, and his daily job of being a high school teacher makes him tough and relentless. Unlike in high school, however, he could tell dirty jokes to me. My final exam was to tell him one, entirely in Spanish. It took about twenty minutes, and careened wildly across tenses.

I lucked out with the homestay. My house was beautiful, spotless, and homey. The Doña of the house, Lola, was a yoda-like figure, a grandma of the old school: hardly ever wore shoes, loved to cook and watch her two soap operas ('Tempesto en el Paradiso' was quite addictive), and full of kindness, quietude and love. One of her daughters, Carla, also lived there when she wasn´t working in Belize, about half an hour away from where we stayed the second night of this trip. Finally, there was Lola´s granddaughter Evelin, who was 15. 15-year-olds are surprisingly similar, all over the world. The food was lovely, and they were very patient with my spastic spanish. Every night I would try to use something I learned in class that day, and I would be gently corrected, often accompanied by an exasperated 'ay, Lucas...'

I was further away from the school than Jina, and on my walk over I would pass a small tienda, run by Don Rene and Doña Ella. Jina and I would walk up and get a glass-bottle coke during our break, and often on the way home I would sit for ten minutes, and try to talk with them. I'm quite positive they were imparting great wisdom, but I could only understand every sixth word. When I asked for their address to write them a letter, they had to confer to try to figure it out. 'Next to the cemetery, San Andres' was their consensus. Oh, and put Guatemala at the top.


Thanks to a tip from Beth, Lucas and I signed up for the Eco-escuela spanish school in San Andres. The town of San Andres lies across the lake from Flores, on a steep hillside. We were picked up by the ¨lancha¨ boat, driven by Cush, a local character. He has only a few teeth left, can play his throat like a trumpet and hasn´t worn shoes in 40 years. Before the road was built to San Andres all traffic from the town was by lancha, and now water transport has dwindled to just Cush.

Lucas and I had decided, prior to arrival, to have different homestay families. That way, Lucas could have Spanish practice with the family, at his own pace. I was relearning Spanish by trying to sort out the Malagasy and French vying for space in my head, and Lucas was learning Spanish for the first time. With vastly different families, we hoped to see multiple sides of life there.

As luck would have it, the biggest festival of the year fell on Friday, at the church by my house. The main attraction is the chalcones, dancing dolls 8 feet high and the entire town came out to watch. As the brass band began to play, towering female figures came stifly up the street, operated by a dancing puppeteer beneath her petticoats. Traditional dances, a marimba band and the high school like brass band kicked off the festivites. At one point a fuse blew and sparks flew as the lights at the square flickered out. The marimba band played on. They must practice in the dark for just these occasions.

My family and I had shredded carrots, chopped potatoes and some squash-like vegetable to sell with tostadas at the festival. We set up a stall and sold our mayonaissed salads, choco-bananas and drinks for the village celebration. All night, intermittent church bells, fireworks, hymns and marimba.

After a few days, spanish came back to me. It´s like a key that unlocks a door that I never could have opened otherwise. My teacher and I spent time trading recipies, talking about the culture of the town and guatemala. A woman I spoke with often, opened up at the end of the week that her husband had crossed illegally into the US and has been away in Los Angeles for 4 years. He crossed right where I used to work, in the desert in AZ. These are the stories I was hoping I would have enough Spanish to hear. Gaining the language back also helped me to realize I had unwittingly stepped into a divorce in progress. Alma and Raoul, the parents of my family got separated my last night there... Crazy to step into another family´s dynamics, but a very real encounter with people struggling with money, machismo, love and life.

So it was good to spend time with Lucas´family too. We decorated his family´s Christmas tree (a little late by their standards, on Nov 19), made corn tortillas with Doña Lola and hung out with his shop owner friends. I love that everyone has a separate ¨tortilla house¨ just for making them. Corn has such a special place here. Our last night we made Doña Lola a soup and banana bread, with ingredients searched high and low for. Every ingredient a treasure hunt.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Little Island

It was getting dark when we went through customs into Guatemala. There was a hand-written sign for all the drugs and fruits we were not supposed to be carrying, and gentlemen with shotguns. The road is unpaved for the first hour into the country, and the dust and darkness didn´t give a lot of depth perception. It was also apparently past our driver´s bedtime, as he kept falling asleep and the guys in the front of the bus had to clap right behind his head to wake him up until we reached Flores.

Our first impression of Flores, actually Santa Elena, was a large, brightly-lit mall and fast food. Strange -- not quite what we were expecting. Neither was Flores, but in a much better way. It´s a beautiful tiny island in Gautemala´s second largest lake (why is everything always the second largest?), covered with rows of stone and plaster houses and narrow cobblestone streets. More like a European village. School started the next day, so we spent the day walking, reading, eating, and generally relaxing. It was lovely. High season isn´t until May, so the restaurants were empty, and we wondered how the place survives. It´s a really rare place where locals were living their lives alongside the tourist industry -- an aerobics class in session, music lessons in open windows, and soccer games. The Pringles delivery truck has an armed escort.

School starts tomorrow!


We caught a bus and a taxi to Hopkins, where Garifuna culture rules. The Garifuna is a Honduran tribe that escaped slavery by canoeing to the Belizian coast. And man can they drum. We were hoping to catch some of the festivities.

Our hostel, Yagudah, was run by the effervescent garifuna-speaking Rosie, who took care of our immediate french fry needs. Although the light situation was just a bare bulb plugged into a power socket, we were provided with some really nice bikes to ride about town in. Hopkins is one loooooong stretch of road along the beach, with fancy resorts on the north and south ends, and locals in-between. We decided to find some kind of internet in town to check on our spanish school reservation, and followed the hand-painted signs to Kismet hostel. It turned out to be an eclectic gringo-run hippie hostel. She regaled us with stories about how her monitor was broken, and she spent exhorbitant amounts of money on repairs that never materialized, but we were in good spirits and offered to help fix it. With only electrical tape and a rusty screwdriver, Lucas got that sucker up and running. Just as Lucas was completing the job, she casually mentioned that actually, her internet was canceled. We high-tailed it out of there as she called out that Lucas was ¨the miracle she had been praying for¨. Genius, that boy.

After dinner with Mani et Antoine, we hit the bar. One of the garifuna drummers at the table next to us said ¨I need a bassist¨, and Lucas without hesitation said ¨that´s me¨. Though the man said Lucas´s drumming made him sick, it sounded fantastic to us. He made us hats from palm fronds.

In the morning, we set out to catch the 7am chicken bus. All the public buses in Belize are old 1980´s yellow school buses. So the school buses for children look exactly like the chicken buses for adults. Our cue was the bus the kids lining the streets didn´t get on. Many false starts. Leaving off at the intersection, we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup to Belmopan, the capital city, where parted ways with Mani et Antoine. Another chicken bus to San Ignacio, then across the border into Guatemala.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Heading Inland

Jina and I are trying something here -- she writes about part of the trip so far, I write about another part. They use iguanas to power the computers here, so we need to be as efficient as possible.

Leaving Placencia was a difficult decision -- we were caught between loving the place, wanting to stay longer and chill out, and needing to get to Guatemala for our Spanish school reservations. We had no idea how long it would take to travel inland, and there were several places we would like to see. So we reluctantly left the little paradise, and grabbed our first chicken bus of the trip, from Placencia to Maya Center. Tony was there with us, resplendent in his same puffy black shirt and trousers, and harness motorcycle boots. Although it turned out he was unable to procure a ride, he did take us down to a little restaurant where we met Ernesto.

Ernesto was the previous and first director of the Cockscomb National Wildlife Reserve, an enormous reserve for jaguar and other big cats. And howler monkeys, which are apparently the loudest land animal. More on them later. Ernesto gave us a wonderful introduction to the park, it's conception, history, and policies. It was like a private audience with the park itself. He was responsible for mitigating the land loss from the local Maya, organizing a local Women's Centre to benefit from the tourist trade. The local women are clearly quite a force to contend with -- when the government changed it's policy about the park, they went to the access road and cut down a huge tree to block any tourists from getting up to the park. Ernesto himself was very thoughtful and gentle, and had such a wise and caring attitude towards both the park and the people he had to reconcile. Although he couldn't guide us in the park, he recommended William, who lived down the road. We arranged with William to meet us at 7am the next day to walk through the park.

The park itself is five or six miles from the highway, so we hired a cab and the three of us (Jina, Tony, and myself) piled in to the little sedan. The fact that it made it up to the park was a minor miracle -- the road was washed out in several places, and there were many large boulders throughout. You could pretty much feel the road on the floor under your feet, scraping away at a good clip. The facilities are great -- clean, solid, solar-powered and screened in. Immediately upon arriving, we ran into the French couple from the boat: Mannaig and Antoine. They were staying the night too, so we offered for them to join us on the guided tour.

Once settled in, Jina, Tony and I headed out for an evening hike around the "Wari Loop". It got very dark very quickly, and soon we were wondering if that was a snake or a root we just stepped on. We had a lovely dinner, and slept well -- no sign of the promised evening Howler monkeys.

The next day started bright and early. William was there, and we set out along the "Green Knowledge" path. He was awesome. Although initially pretty quiet, he opened up when we started asking questions (he lies Jackie Chan a lot). He knows so much about the park and the wildlife, and was able to spot birds in the thickest of foliage and jaguar prints in the mud. He showed us the pirhanna in the river, and we tossed in some cinnamon roll for them to froth over. We mentioned our disappointment with not hearing the Howler monkeys, and he started making this weird throat noise -- the result of which was that the monkeys started responding. It even broke out into a howling fight between the dominant male and another male in its territory -- with us right under the two of them. It was insane. They sound like death metal singers with asthma. We could see them move from branch to branch above us. Wow.

The hike then visited a beautiful waterfall, and we climbed to the top of Ben's Bluff, with views of the surrounding park. Incredible. There were so many different kinds of trees and wildlife everywhere.

The way out we shared a taxi to the highway with Mannaig and Antoine, and tried to figure out how to get to a town called Hopkins. Hopkins is known as the center of the local Garifunda culture -- with it's own language, history, and language. The National Garifunda Day holiday is on November 19th (this week!), and we heard that people will be arriving for the huge four-day festival of food and the traditional Garifunda drumming, like we heard on Tobacco Caye. It was too promising to miss. So we arranged a hotel and our transport -- local chicken bus to taxi, and arrived in Hopkins.

Following the reef

I think we're realizing we are terrible at keeping up a blog. Only a few computers have crossed our path and there's always been other things to do. But, here we are in San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, and waiting for our bus with internet galore.

Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world so that's where we headed after our first day in Belize city. We motored out to Caye Caulker, watching mainland Belize recede in the distance and a tropical island come into view. Our pace dropped a notch with the discovery of a hammock on the beach. Caye Caulker is a mellow island, split in two from hurricane Hattie. Most of Belize was ravaged, scarred then reshaped by hurricanes Hattie and Mitch. The evidence of these storms is visible in the landscape and heard in the stories of the people we talk to that survived them. Caye Caulker is small so that by evening we were meeting familiar faces and had gotten to know the key locales around the island-- navigating around the piles of empty conch shells and taking the oceanside cemetery shortcut (with "sunset" and "sunrise" instead of "born" and "died" on the tombstones).

We happened to stop in to a shop that we'd seen advertise for a one way 3 day sail out across the barrier reef, stopping to snorkel, fish for dinner and camp out on little uninhabited cayes. And lo and behold, the trip had been delayed and was leaving the next day, and needing two more people to make it go.

So we hopped on, joining 9 other travelers from Scotland, France, Seattle and Ireland and the two local crew. Dolphins surfed our bow (baby dolphin!), flying fish careened out of the water ahead of us like skipped stones and the wind filled our sails as we headed south along the reef. Everyone burned to a vibrant shade of pink. Our first snorkel was at a caye called Gallow's point, also a line from a Captain Bogg and Salty song--"from Port Royal to Gallow's Point we cultivated fear...".

We slept out under the full moon, with minus tides on a tiny island with 8 palm trees. Our yellow boat listed and ran aground until the tide came back to free it. And in the morning hundreds of schooling sardine minnows hid in the shallows off the island. Occasionally a school of large jack fish would plow through the sardines, raising a ruckus, and brown pelicans would swoop in to scoop up confused stragglers. We stopped to snorkel twice a day, hovering over fan coral, huge brain corals and iridescent fish aplenty. It was infinitely fascinating to splay out in the warm top layer of the Carribean and float there watching an intricate world of creatures living in and on other creatures. Plus, barracuda for dinner.

We pulled into Tobacco Caye the second night. Shore shower. Sea legs. We set up tents in the middle of the island town, trying to avoid the coconut trees and their heavy, irregular falling fruit. Everyone in a Belizian town knows the stats on how many people have been killed by falling coconuts. Tobacco Caye: One wounded, none killed. We headed to the little beachside tiki bar-- with a specials sign facing the ocean that just said "Obama". Two local garafunda drummers played hand drums like mad men. They started up a local dance that tells the story of finding a dead body on the beach and trying to wake it up. And so the stick used for the dance is passed to the next dancer. Lucas went up and did a mean, very respectable jiggle. Pictures to come. It felt like the first bit of old Belizian culture we'd seen so far. We fell asleep with the full moon framed in the upper window of our tent. Dangerous coconut trees swaying in the breeze.

Three of our group opted to stay on Tabacco Caye, they liked it so much. The remaining five of us sailed on, stopping to swim with spotted rays and a flounder, in and out of mangroves, like swimming through a forest. Jellyfish began to populate the water. Our last snorkel stop was the best-- with towering corals 10 feet high. We were so reluctant to leave the boat almost left us behind.

We arrived in Placencia and took the honeymoon ashore. Placencia is a peninsula of mellow beach town , with cute restaurants and so much peace. Francis Ford Coppola's beach mansion lighting up the far shore. We found a room right on the beach and relaxed into it. A thatched restaurant right next door. To stay another day or head up to the jaguar reserve? We met a guy at breakfast the next day named Tony who happened to be a volunteer at the Cockscomb wildlife basin, where we'd planned on heading that day. Tony is from the north of England, with red red hair, and a black renaissance outfit. He works in the forest there clearing brush. He can only see a foot in front of him, but doesn't wear glasses so he can regain his eyesight. He was headed back up there on the 1 o'clock bus so we took it as a sign to go with him. Packed up our stuff said goodbye to the coast and the beach and the Carribean vibe. We felt like the honeymoon portion of the honeymoon was over and the adventure had begun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hard Boiled

We just checked our email, and saw this masterpiece:

You all should read it.

We're tired, hungry and happy, and will write tomorrow.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Local TV

We just caught the tail end of the Obituary channel on TV.

Belize City!

After about an hour's sleep, Heather picked us up at 3:30am and we headed to the airport... the flights were good, and we were literally surrounded by fellow honeymooning couples. The competition was fierce. Flying in, we noticed things looked a little... wet. So apparently, a "tropical depression" hit northern Central America for the last three weeks, dumping rain aplenty - the worst flooding in 30 years. The floodwaters are just now starting to recede, leaving behind a wake of unpassable roads. Hmmm, didn't hear about this at home. Damn you,! We'll soon see/wade through the extent of the damage. We just saw the local weather on TV, looks good.

We had some local Belizean cuisine tonight, a carribean-style beans & rice dish and the famous Belikin beer, good good good.

Lucas is sweating a lot.

Tomorrow, off to the Cayes!

-Lucas & Jina

Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Germany

My brother Brian just told me the word for 'honeymoon' in German is 'flitterwoche'. It's a pretty good word.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Well, we're a couple of days from leaving town, Jina is busy finishing up work projects, and I'm setting up this blog for our trip. We'll both be contributing to it as we travel through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.