Monday, November 17, 2008

Lessons from El Salvador, Part III and Final

Click here for Part I and Part II.

21. A fruit that smells like overripe (and not in a good way) stinky cheese can have a startlingly sweet, completely un-cheesy taste when made into a fresco. (Namely, noni -- it's wonderfully medicinal, too!)

22. Wandering around a Salvadoran shopping mall is somehow much more entertaining than the same activity in the States, though the food court is strangely familiar.

23. Never make positive generalizations about bus drivers. Lesson #14 is hereby amended to "Most El Salvadoran chicken bus drivers are far more civilized and courteous than Guatemalan chicken bus drivers..."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Lessons from Honduras

1. Always change enough money at the border to pay for transportation, a meal, and a night's lodging, in case you can't find a working ATM until the next day.

2. Make a habit of making friends with the local sitting next to you on the bus. It's fun, and can come in really handy if you encounter unexpected "adventures" along the way.

3. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you're a (comparatively) rich white tourist and that people will treat you that way -- but that doesn't mean you have to act like one.

4. Tree piping termites are crunchy and taste like lemon.

5. Better safe than stuck: take the early bus and you can laugh at all your friends who miss the ferry because they wanted to sleep in an extra hour.

6. Underwater bouyancy control is an awesome skill, and fun to play with.

7. Hallowe'en on a Caribbean island: no pumpkins, but plenty of pirates and princesses.

8. Feeling like an outsider in a group of people you "should" fit in with isn't really one of those things that gets easier with experience.

9. Don't make an island the last stop on a trip with a deadline for getting back to the mainland during hurricane season.

10. Fresh, warm, buttered coconut bread is a positively mood-altering experience.

11. Preparation and contingency planning are fine, but worry will get you nowhere. Once you stop worrying about things, they generally work themselves out just fine.

12. It may seem like a cruel trick of the universe that the people you feel the strongest connection to are those with whom you are given the least time to spend. Don't hold back just because you know you'll have to say goodbye -- give yourself fully to the friendship and cherish every moment. You'll meet again someday.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Reflections on Solo Travel

Note: This was written over a period of about a week, from my last few days in El Salvador to my first few days in Honduras (hence the fact that it gets a bit off-track at the end), but I never got the chance to type it up and post it. I'm actually about to head back to El Salvador again, so the end of the post is a bit out of date. Pretend you're reading it a week and a half ago. :)

This was originally going to be another pithy, unexplained snippet of a Lesson from El Salvador: "Traveling solo in the low tourism season has its drawbacks and its perks." But as I thought about it a bit more I realized there was more to say -- this is a lesson I'm still learning, but it's an important one, and it deserves a fuller treatment.

Traveling solo has been a new experience for me this year, as has traveling long-term: Guatemala was easy, in a way, because Cristie was with me for the most touristy time of my stay, and the rest of the time I was in Spanish school, so I had a more structured lifestyle and built-in social life. But El Salvador has been different. Here it has been very obvious that I am traveling alone through the least touristed country in Central America during the lowest tourist season of the year. Most of the time, apart from one night in Tacuba and two nights in Santa Ana, I have been either the only one or one of two tourists in the hostels I've stayed at -- and I've often felt I've been the only tourist in the entire town or city. This, as the brief version of this lesson mentions, has its benefits and drawbacks.

The main drawback is that it can be difficult to see/do some of the main tourist sites and activities as a solo traveler. Sure, for some things it doesn't matter if you are alone or in a group. But other times, such as when organized tours and/or guides are required, the choices (if you can't round up other tourists) are either: (a) pay the full price for the minimum number of people (usually 3-4) and get a private tour, or (b) not go. Since I'm not a fan of spending triple the cost of anything, and since most of these types of tours tend to be more fun with a group of people anyway, it's option (b) for me.

The flip side of this is that it forces me to be less of a tourist and more of a traveler. At the end of my stay in El Salvador I may not be able to check off on a list all of the things that tourists do in the country when they "do" Central America, but I think I will come away with a richer experience and a deeper understanding of Salvadoran people and culture. I tend to visit fewer places and to spend more time in each place than people who are rushing about trying to hit all the tourist spots, and in the absence of other travelers I have been spending more time around local people and/or participating in local activities.

My first full day in Santa Ana, I went to a concert in the Teatro de Santa Ana in the morning. It was only an hour long, and was played by the Banda Sinfónica de Occidente (a military band), for school groups "and the general public." I think I was the general public -- I was definitely the only non-latina in the theater, and I'm pretty sure I was also the only non-student, non-teacher audience member as well. The main floor and first balcony were willed with middle- to high-school-aged students and teachers, and I had the entire second balcony to myself, overlooking the scene. It was fun to shift my gaze between the musicians and the audience, being the fly on the wall. It was a good concert, too. The finale absolutely cracked me up -- it was a medley that progressed from (forgive me for not knowing exact titles, and I'm missing one or two songs in the middle) A Whiter Shade of Pale to We Will Rock You to Figaro to Another One Bites the Dust, and ended with We Are the Champions. Absolutely brilliant. True Salvadoran culture, and worth every penny of the $0.50 entry fee. (It was probably meant to be serious, though, so it was a good thing nobody could see me rolling in the aisle.)

After the concert I wandered around the city for a bit, eventually happening upon a picturesquely ruined building (why is it that ruins are so picturesque?) and stopped to take a couple of photos. The man who was working in the grounds (his name was Hector) invited me to go inside and walk around and take all the photos I wanted. He followed me shortly and began telling me about the building (it was built 100-110 years ago, was originally an art school, then a government school, and he never told me how it was ruined) and about the city. After a bit, a young Salvadoran man named Napoleon wandered in and joined the conversation, and we all chatted for about 20 minutes more (have I mentioned that I love being able to speak Spanish?). I ended up going to lunch at a super-cheap comedor (full plate of good food plus horchata for under $2) with Napoleon and hanging out with him for much of the afternoon. It was a delightful experience, and one I most likely would not have had if I had scheduled my time full of tourist activities.

All of that said, for the next week and a half or so, I am going to be a complete tourist. I am currently in Copán Ruinas -- the second most popular tourist destination in Honduras -- and tomorrow will be making my way to number one -- the Bay Islands, to go diving off of Utila. I have been and will continue to be surrounded by primarily English-speaking, backpack-toting tourists, facing the mental and emotional challenge of making new friends while at the same time trying to distinguish myself from them somewhat because I dislike being lumped in the "gringo tourist" category. When I'm on my own, locals speak to me in Spanish and I feel on a somewhat even footing with them; when I'm in touristy cities full of gringos, the locals (who can) speak to me first in English, and it bothers me. It creates a distance between us, the divide between affluent tourist and humble local, and it doesn't give me a chance to show that I respect their culture enough to speak in their language.

But I guess I'll have to put up with the struggle against being labeled "gringo tourist" for a bit longer, because I'm not going to forego a diving experience in the Bay Islands! :)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Getting to Copán Ruinas

... Was an adventure, to say the least. But it seems that whenever I encounter these sorts of "adventures," there is always somebody there watching over me -- usually a local who is sitting next to me on the bus and adopts me and looks out for me. Yesterday there were two, and I was grateful for not only their help and reassurance, but their pleasant company as well.

The border crossing between El Salvador and Honduras at El Poy was remarkably laid-back and mellow (so mellow that I had to search for 5 minutes to find somebody to come into the immigration office to check my passport and take my $3). I walked across and got in a colectivo taxi (that leaves when it's full of people, which can take a while) to the nearest town of Nueva Ocotepeque. In the taxi I met Karla and an older woman she was traveling with (I guessed her to be Karla's monther-in-law, but never actually found out). We struck up a conversation and discovered that they were also headed to La Entrada (where I had to go to transfer to a bus for Copán), and that Karla's husband lives and works in San Jose and that she's going to visit him next month. What a small world. :)

When we got to Nueva Ocotepeque around 11 a.m. we were told that the next bus for La Entrada wouldn't be leaving until 1:45 -- due to flooding on the highways between the capital and where we were, the buses weren't getting through as regularly (it's been raining hard in Honduras for 2 weeks straight, and LOTS of places are flooded). Fortunately, a bus from another company rolled by around noon and we managed to get to La Entrada around 3:30. Karla helped me figure out which bus to catch for Copán and then took off to her destination (after exchanging email addresses so we can visit each other in California).

The bus for Copán was supposed to leave at 4:00, but didn't pull away until almost 5:00, dashing my hopes of arriving while it was still light out. A young Honduran man sat next to me, and for a long time we didn't speak, until we came to a section of the highway where the road was halfway washed out, and we started speaking about all the rain and the roads, and continued a friendly conversation from there. His name was Sammy, and he lives in Copán. He kept giving me updates on how close we were getting -- we've got halfway left, only 10km left, etc. Then, when we were about 5km from Copán, the bus driver pulled over and turned off the bus. Apparently there was a landslide ahead and he wasn't going to be able to cross it.

Sammy almost convinced me to start walking, but we (and a few other tourists headed for Copán) opted to wait for a pickup or other smaller vehicle which could either get us across the landslide or at least get us a little closer to it to minimize our walking distance (we were still about a 20 minute walk from the slide, and an hour's walk in total, which is not fun in the dark with a full backpack). Another bus came by in about 15 minutes -- he thought he could get over the slide, but all the drivers coming over from the other side shouted out their windows at him that he shouldn't try. So he dropped us by the side of the road and turned around and left. We ended up walking over the mudslide in the dark (fortunately, it wasn't raining, and it wasn't really all that dangerous), and catching a minibus to Copán on the other side. Sammy was looking out for me the whole way, making sure I had my bags and my footing, and stuck by his side the whole time. It was very sweet.

All's well that ends well -- we eventually arrived in Copán around 7:30. The three other tourists I had encountered on the bus and I checked into a hostel and then went to dinner, where I ate the "burrito enorme," which more than lived up to its name. But oh, it was good -- it had been a long time since breakfast in El Salvador. :)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


As some of you know, and others may guess, if you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook, I've been thinking about heading homeward. It started out as homesickness in Tacuba, but as I dove deeper into that feeling and explored the reasons for it, I realized that I don't want to go home because I'm tired of traveling, but because I'm excited about a multitude of opportunities and activities back home, and feel like I am ready to transition back into that world. I may not have a crystal-clear vision for the rest of my life (and I never expect to), but after taking some time out this year and getting to know myself better, I do have a much clearer vision now of my next steps. After feeling like I've been floating rather aimlessly for the last several years, this is more exciting for me than I can properly describe.

So, what is it that's got me itching to cut my travels and come back to the States, you ask? Well, it's a lot of things. Separating myself for a time from first the "normal" culture of working life (in February) and later from the rest of my customary life and language and culture in general (in July, when I started my travels) has taught me a great deal about myself and helped me to distill my values and ideals and goals. By discovering the things that I've missed the most in my travels I have begun to piece together a picture of how I want to live my life when I return, full of all those things that mean the most to me, without all the trappings that tend to accumulate over the years in an unquestioned life. I very purposely gave away most of my belongings when I left for Central America -- giving myself permission to start from scratch when(ever) I returned, to be picky about what I let back into my life rather than unthinkingly picking up where I left off.

For reasons that should be obvious after reading the list below, I will not be moving back to Portland (sorry, folks -- but I'll come visit!), but to California -- the Monterey Bay Area, to be more specific. I'm a little apprehensive about becoming a Californian again (you mean I have to buy a car?!), but I think I can handle it.

And, since I know you're dying to see the list, here it is -- some of the things I have missed the most and/or look forward to exploring as new adventures (the two most important factors first, everything else in no particular order, and by no means complete):

- Being close to family
- Work that challenges my limits, builds my abilities, and makes me feel I'm making a contribution to the world (after 8 long years, I'll be working at the marine lab again -- wheee!)
- Learning to play the guitar (and the fiddle?)
- Shape note singing
- Taking German classes
- Rock climbing
- Being close to the ocean
- Social dancing, ritual dancing, taking various kinds of dance lessons
- Gardening, growing things (& cooking them!)
- Really good, 55-60% cacao dark chocolate (okay, I know this isn't a reason to come home from Central America, but seriously -- the chocolate here could use some help)

I just bought a plane ticket to San Diego for November 7th. I'll be making my way north from there by train, visiting friends and family along the way, landing in Portland for Thanksgiving and then heading back to the Bay Area for Christmas and Harmony (hooray for Harmony!). See you soon! :)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lessons from El Salvador, Part II

Click here for Part I.

11. Always, always, always carry insect repellent and itch reliever.

12. Always carry a spare battery for your camera, even if the existing battery is fully charged. Carry two spares in hot, humid climates.

13. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want -- chances are, people will be delighted to help you out (give you guitar lessons, make phone calls on your behalf, hoist your bag, teach you silly ditties in Spanish...)

14. El Salvadoran chicken bus drivers are far more civilized and courteous than Guatemalan chicken bus drivers -- and bus fares are cheap!

15. Sometimes they're trying to sell you something. Sometimes they're trying to hit on you. Sometimes they're trying to do both at the same time. But sometimes they're just genuinely friendly and trying to makd conversation. Try to figure out which is the case before reacting too strongly.

16. When you hang around with somebody who knows everybody, lots of things are cheap(er) or free. But it's not always worth the price.

17. In a 48-piece orchestra, there may be 10 trumpets, 10 clarinets, and six tubas, but the single tiny piccolo still steals the show.

18. Weaving is not a practical travel hobby.

19. It is perfectly acceptable to do "nothing" some days.

20. You know you're doing alright with your Spanish when:
- You haven't bothered to use your dictionary in weeks
- You begin to resent other travelers who don't speak Spanish because they force the conversation into English
- After two and a half days, your new friend from Mexico (who speaks perfectly good English) comments on how strange it is to hear you speaking your native language

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lessons from El Salvador, Part I

Well, it didn't take long to accumulate my first set of lessons from El Salvador -- this place may be tiny, but it offers a lot to learn. :)

1. El Salvadorian border officials are infinitely more helpful and trustworthy than those found on the Guatemalan side.

2. US dollar bills are extremely boring and the coins insubstantial and lifeless after other Central American currency.

3. Not only is riding (standing) in the back of the pickup truck more fun than riding in the cab, it can also be a heck of a lot more comfortable, depending on the truck's shocks (or, more commonly, lack thereof). Just remember to keep your mouth closed at all times (and if you absolutely must sing, stand with your back to the direction of travel to avoid swallowing too many bugs).

4. Attempting to ride uphill on a steep, gravelly dirt road on a mountain bike that's un poco frenada -- in other words, is constantly braking because the front wheel is crooked and rubs against the brake pads -- is just as difficult as it sounds; i.e., practically impossible. (And that was the "good" bike!)

5. Mosquito bites last longer if you scratch them -- it's not worth it.

6. Always make sure you know exactly what the deal is before you agree.

7. Conversations that are difficult in English can be even more difficult in Spanish, but can sometimes be easier in a bizarre way -- if you don't know how to say things subtly, you have to just come straight out and bluntly say what you mean, which can be more effective in the end.

8. Despite Lesson 7... Attempting to explain to a Latin man that he needs to learn to respect women and their desires (or lack thereof), and that when a woman asys "no" it means "no", can be a fruitless and frustrating exercise -- but good practice, especially when you have to repeat yourself several times a day.

9. When your mind and your heart are somewhere other than where your body is, it's time to move on.

10. Never leave a country after visiting only one place -- not all of El Salvador is Tacuba (or any other town, for that matter).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lessons from Guatemala, Part V (and Really Final This Time)

Okay, I lied. I should have known there would be more lessons on the way to the border (and a few that I neglected to record earlier in the trip). This really is the last batch, though, I promise... I've already started collecting lessons from El Salvador. :)

Click here for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

44. The most fashionable place to wear a motorcycle helmet while riding (if you have one at all) is on one's forearm. Otherwise, it should be kept on the handlebars at all times.

45. The worst thing about dark streets at night is that you can't tell when you're about to step in something disgusting. Best to walk your route during daylight hours and memorize the location of all the crap (literally) so you can avoid it at night.

46. Fizzy beverages and salsa dancing is not a good combination.

47. Be grateful that, in a Mayan ceremony, it is perfectly acceptable to offer your portion of aguardiente (corn liquor) to the fire rather than drink it.

48. On a twisty divided mountain highway, a detour may simply mean driving in the oncoming lane, with no dividers and no warning to oncoming traffic.

49. A "direct" shuttle from Xela to Antigua (to the south) may in fact carry passengers bound for locations as disparate as San Cristóbal de las Casas (Mexico), Chichicastenango (east), and Lago de Atitlán (south, but out of the way). Never assume you're actually going directly to your destination, and never believe a claim of "non-stop" or "private" service.

50. Sometimes the chicken bus experience can seem remarkably like riding the Knight Bus, only without the reassurance of magic.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Transportation Trials and Tribulations

Today has not been my day for planning or accomplishing efficient transportation. I am currently (after a saga I will relate in a moment) in Antigua, Guatemala -- I came here because I figured it would be infinitely easier to plan and execute my route to El Salvador from here than from Xela, and because I really didn't want to go through Guate (Guatemala City) if I could possibly help it. Unfortunately, this has not proved nearly so straightforward as I had hoped, and I'm going to have to go to Guate anyway.

... But first, this morning's adventure...

I decided to spring for a shuttle bus from Xela to Antigua rather than take a series of chicken buses, for the increased efficiency and security and comfort. I was assured when I bought the (none-too-cheap) ticket that it was "direct, private transport" door-to-door from my house in Xela to my hostel in Antigua. Well, it was neither. I booked a "direct" shuttle to Antigua, and got on a bus with 7 people on it, none of whom were going to Antigua. We had to make a number of stops, either to drop people off at connecting buses or at their own destinations, and the trip that should have taken 3.5-4 hours took 5.5. In addition, once the bus started emptying, the driver started picking up other passengers from the street - it was one thing when he picked up a couple of Guatemaltecos for a short trip for about Q2, but another thing when he picked up two backpackers in Panajachel and charged an extra Q50 apiece, when the people who had gone through the tour agency in Pana had paid Q90 ... and you can be sure Adrenalina Tours isn't going to know about those two passengers (well, not until I fill out their online comments form...).

Quite possibly the most outrageous aspect of the shuttle service was that, when we arrived in Antigua, the driver had no idea how to navigate the city, was not familiar with any of the hostels, and seemed to have absolutely no sense of direction (and seemed incapable of following directions, as well). He let one guy off as soon as we got into town, and two more at the Parque Central, and then it was just one couple and me in the van. The driver asked them where they were going, but did not seem to comprehend the address, even though they showed it to them on a piece of paper - he kept asking, "but where is it?", as if they would know how to get there from wherever we were when they'd never been to the city. They also spoke almost no Spanish, but a bit of English. Fortunately, I had a map of Antigua (which the driver did not even seem to possess), and I ended up figuring out where we were and directing the driver (it was an extremely painstaking process, believe me!) to their hostel - or as close as we could get him to come with his refusal to follow my directions (and no, it was not a fault of my Spanish skills). (Cristie, you would have been proud of me!) We had a bit more luck finding my hostel after that (there was only one turn involved), and trust me, I was glad to get off of that shuttle. The driver had been asking everybody for tips as he let them off (he even asked me how to say propina in English so he could ask the people who didn't understand in Spanish), but I was glad to see that he had the grace not to ask me, after I had pretty much saved his hide. Grrrrr.

... And on to this afternoon...

I spent the afternoon walking around town popping in and out of various travel agencies, always asking the same questions, always receiving the same response. Yes, I can get to El Salvador from here. It costs $30. You take a shuttle to Guate and then a first-class bus to San Salvador. What, you don't want to go to San Salvador? I'm sorry, you can't get off the bus before the capital because it's a direct bus. No, we don't know of any other way to get to El Salvador.

Grrrrr. The problem is, the place I want to go (Tacuba) is really quite close to the border, and it would be utterly ridiculous to have to go all the way to San Salvador just to have to hop another bus and backtrack the 100 km almost back to the border. But apparently I can't just hop off the first class bus at any point I want, which means.... I have to figure out my own way to get there. Here's the plan:

- Chicken bus from Antigua to Guate first thing tomorrow morning
- Hope to goodness I can find the right bus terminal without too much wandering around looking like a lost tourist with lots of expensive luggage in a big city
- Chicken bus to Cuilapa and 11 km beyond, to the fork in the highway at El Molino Junction
- Stand at the junction at what I hope is the South-going fork, and wait for a bus that says it's headed for Valle Nuevo
- Pass the border between Valle Nuevo, Guatemala and Las Chinamas, El Salvador (this will probably be the easiest part of my trip, or at least the most straightforward)
- Look for a bus headed to Ahuachapán and get on it
- In Ahuachapán, look for a bus to Tacuba
- In Tacuba, ask around to figure out how to get to my hostel, because I don't have a map

How's that for a day's journey? If you have extra brain-space to spare tomorrow and feel like sending some extra-specially-strong fun, safe and easy travel thoughts my way, I would appreciate them. :)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Lessons from Guatemala, Part IV (and Final)

As I am leaving Guatemala tomorrow, this is the final (and slightly longer) edition of my Lessons. Click here for Part I, Part II, and Part III. No doubt the lessons will continue in El Salvador!

31. Guatemalan drivers tend to turn on their headlights only when they see something coming.

32. Always ask at least three people for directions before setting off confidently in what may or may not be the right direction. (Credit goes to Kentucky for this tip - thanks, guys!)

33. Unscented, non-antiperspirant, non-powdery-white-clothes-staining deoderant is pretty much impossible to find.

34. A crippled umbrella is still better than no umbrella at all, if only for the comic relief it provides in the middle of a downpour.

35. Barbed wire fences and rusty corrugated tin roofs are apparently great places to dry laundry.

36. When it rains in Xela, the water goes out in half the city. Go figure.

37. Don't get too excited about all the billboards and signs you see denouncing litter and encouraging protection of nature -- basura is still an undeniably prominent feature of just about every landscape.

38. Don't even try to get anything done on a Sunday.

39. Your local ice cream vendor may be an old man riding a tottering bicycle with a giant cooler strapped to the handlebars, carrying a megaphone blasting the classic ice cream truck ditties. (I know, I already posted about ice cream vendors, but I loved this guy!)

40. Building relationships with local shopkeepers (and club owners) is really quite pleasant, and dead useful if you don't have exact change and need to come back mañana for something you bought today.

41. Never take a shuttle when a chicken bus will do. But when a chicken bus won't do, a shuttle (or at least a Pullman) is generally worth the price and peace of mind.

42. If your fever is high enough, you can dream in languages you don't normally speak in waking life (in my case, German -- I only wish I could remember it!)

43. It really is a very small world.

Casa Doris

In tandem with my post about graduation from Spanish school, I wanted to write just a bit about my fantastic homestay experience at Casa Doris. After two weeks with my first family I requested a change because, although the first family was very nice, they were also very reserved and quiet, and I got practically no conversation practice with them. Doris had been highly recommended to me by some friends from school as a wonderful host mother, and I couldn't be happier with my decision to move.

The family (in-house) consists of Doris and her daughter Andrea, who is a Spanish teacher at Ulew Tinimit. While not the typical large Guatemalan family, I have felt more welcome and at home there than I could have thought possible. Doris treats her students like family -- she cooks special soups for us when we're sick, always asks us how our day went (and has genuine interest in the response), and calls us "mis niños" -- and every morning when we leave for school she calls out from the kitchen, "Hasta la vista, babies!" She cooks the most wonderful food and always asks, "¿Sufficiente niña?" to make sure I really, truly had enough to eat.

Conversation is always lively and interesting at mealtimes -- sometimes we talk about food, sometimes about language, comparing expressions in English and Spanish, but mostly just about daily life. Both Doris and Andrea say they have observed a vast improvement in my fluency over the four weeks that I've been with them (even Juan, a close family friend y un buen homre, says he notices a huge difference - mostly in my confidence in speaking), and a large part of that is attributable to these two wonderful women, who are encouraging and helpful and just plain fun to talk to.

The house itself is cozy, surprisingly warm at night (thank goodness!), and with a truly hot shower (I have a feeling I'm going to miss that shower...). There is a small un-roofed patio where I stand to brush my teeth at night (when it's not raining), gazing up at the stars and the Guatemalan flag waving from the roof of the Spanish school next door.

My room has a skylight (covered with corrugated fiberglass rather than glass) which lets in sunlight and the sound of the rain.

The house is located close to the top of a relatively steep hill, on a stone road that has definitely seen better days (though they have made a few improvements to it in the last several weeks that I've been here -- no more huge gaping car-traps in the middle of the road). It's definitely a workout walking up it and, from what I can tell, just about as tough to drive a car (not to mention ride a bicycle!) down it (it's one-way downhill - I don't think Guatemalan cars would be able to make it up...). Ironically, this is also the street where all of the drivers license offices are, which means that in order to obtain a Guatemalan drivers license you have to navigate (i.e., slalom) this street. A good test, I suppose. :) On a good day (i.e., not often during the rainy season), you can see Volcán Santa María from the top of the street.

All in all, Casa Doris has been an absolutely fantastic place to stay. If you ever find yourself in Quetzaltenango, do yourself a huge favor and contact Doris. And tell her I sent you. :)

Pillow Talk

No, not that kind of pillow talk...

I meant to post this months (almost literally!) ago, but somehow never got around to it -- probably because I never got around to posting about Chichicastenango and the fantastic market there. Anyhow, this post is about a bed -- specifically, my bed (and more specifically, my pillowcase) at the Posada El Teléfono in Chichi. Here's what I wrote in my journal the first night we stayed there:

...But first I must write about my bed.... Cristie called these beds "firm" when we arrived. I just shifted around to put my journal on the floor after sitting up in bed writing for half an hour, and realized that my rear end had gone to sleep. I then attempted to slide down under the covers, but my toe caught on a small tear in the bottom sheet and made it longer. I remarked to Cristie, "Well, that rip just got a little larger," and I tried again, but my toe caught again and ripped it even more, which sent both of us into a fit of giggles. The "headboards" are made out of thin, painted plywood tacked to the walls. Oh, and my top sheet looks like it was once either a shower curtain or half of a duvet cover -- it's got buttonholes all along the top edge. Cristie says, "Yeah, you got the weird bed." :P

My pillowcase opens on the long edge, and has something printed on one side in some language I don't recognize:

Soms zijn er witte plekken in een droom.
Misschien dat daar wel stille vlinders zweven.
Al weet je niet vanwaar zo'n vlinder komt.

Soms zijn er witte plekken in een droom.
Misschien dat je dan rustiger kunt slapen.
Zodat je niet meer bang bent voor wat komt.

Soms zijn er witte plekken in een droom.
Dan brengt de slaap je warmte en wat licht.
En minder donker waarvan je wakker ligt.

I just hope it means something peaceful, like "sweet dreams"!


Almost two months later, I finally got around to searching for this poem, and found out that it's in Dutch, and that it is indeed a bedtime poem (does anybody know if it's also a lullaby? It would be interesting to hear it sung...) Here's the translation I found on this website:

Sometimes .........................

sometimes there are white spots in a dream
maybe that quiet butterflies float
you do not already know whence comes as `n butterfly
sometimes there are white spots in a dream
mischien dat je rustiger kunt slapen maybe you can sleep calmer
so you no longer afraid of what was or what it is
sometimes there are white spots in a dream
then you sleep, the heat and some light
and less dark things you awake is

It's obviously an internet-generated translation, and one from a native speaker would be much lovelier -- anybody care to provide? :)

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Note: English translation follows. I just figured that, since this post is all about Spanish school, I should write it in Spanish... :)

El viernes pasado me "gradué" de Celas Maya, la escuela de español donde he estado estudiando por las seis semanas pasadas. Ahora (en teoría), tengo en mi mente toda la gramática de español -- sólo tengo que usarla! :)

Celas Maya (Centro de Estudios Linguisticos, Antropológicos y Sociales Maya) es una de las mejores escuelas de español en Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala, y la recomiendo a quienquiera que quiera aprender español. Cada estudiante tiene su propio maestro/a, y las parejas de maestros y estudiantes trabajan en mesas individuales (cubiertas de manteles tejidos de colores brillantes) alrededor de un patio al aire libre con rosas y árboles de durazno.

La primera semana, estudié con Martha, una mujer bien inteligente, y aprendí mucho sobre la historia política y social de Guatemala, los derechos de las mujeres, y la identidad cultural en Guatemala y en Xela. Ella me presentó a un sacerdote Maya (un carpintero), y recibí una consulta para averiguar mis Nawales (símbolos espirituales de la religión Maya). Quiero escribir una nota separada sobre esto pero, en cortas palabras, el sacerdote me dijo que yo tengo "buenos Nawales" y que, si yo quiera, podría ser una sacerdotisa Maya también (por supuesto, después de muchos años de estudiar).

La segunda semana yo cambié de maestro y empecé a estudiar con Francisco, y me caía tan bien que no cambié otra vez por el resto de mi tiempo en la escuela. De alguna manera, Francisco siempre sabía exactamente lo que yo necesitaba aprender, y en el momento exacto en que necesité aprenderla. También sabía cuando pudía presionarme o desafiarme, y cuando yo necesitaba más tiempo para procesar lo que había aprendido. Él es uno de los mejores maestros que he tenido en todo mi carrera escolar.

Probablemente podría quedarme seis semanas más en Celas Maya, porque todavía hay mucho más que necesito aprender. Pero, por el otro lado, necesito salir del ambiente controlado de la escuela para poner en práctica lo que he aprendido. Con este propósito, teminé mis estudios (por ahora), y el miércoles me voy a El Salvador para continuar mi gran aventura en Centroamerica. :)


Last Friday I "graduated" from Celas Maya, the Spanish school where I've been studying for the last six weeks. In theory, I now have in my mind all of the Spanish grammar -- all I have to do now is use it! :)

Celas Maya (Centro de Estudios Linguisticos, Antropológicos y Sociales Maya) is one of the best Spanish schools in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala, and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to learn Spanish. Every student has his/her own teacher, and the teacher-student pairs work at individual tables (covered with brightly-colored woven tablecloths) around an open-air patio with roses and peach trees.

The first week I studied with Martha, an extremely intelligent woman, and I learned a lot about Guatemalan political and social history, women's rights, and cultural identity in Guatemala and in Xela. Martha introduced me to a Mayan priest (a carpenter), and I had a consultation to determine my Nawals (Mayan spiritual symbols). I want to write a separate blog post about that experience but, in short, the priest told me that I have "good Nawals" and that, if I wanted to, I could be a Mayan priestess as well (after years of study, of course).

The second week I changed teachers and started studying with Francisco, and I got along so well with him that I didn't change teachers again for the rest of my time at the school. Somehow, Francisco always knew exactly what I needed to learn and the exact moment in which I needed to learn it. He also knew when he could push or challenge me, and when I needed more time to process what I had learned. He's one of the best teachers I've had in my entire school career.

I could probably stay at Celas Maya another six weeks, because there's still a lot that I need to learn. On the other hand, though, I also need to leave the controlled environment of the school and put into practice what I've learned. With that goal, I finished my studies (for now), and on Wednesday I'm leaving for El Salvador to continue my great Central American adventure. :)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Two Months

Journal excerpt, September 19, 2008

Today marks my second month in Guatemala. On the one hand, it doesn't feel like I've been here nearly that long; my vacation with Cristie seems like it was another trip that took place ages ago, and I feel like I've only been in Xela a couple of weeks. On the other hand, I feel as if I've really settled in pretty well here and gotten comfortable in Xela and Guatemala, which makes it feel like I've been here forever. According to Boris, that means it's time -- past time -- to leave, but I'm not entirely convinced that being comfortable is such a bad thing. Sure, it's bad if I let the familiarity and comfort factor take over and get stuck here, but as long as I have "legitimate" things I want to do*, goals to accomplish and a determination to leave when I have accomplished them, then being comfortable makes life all the more pleasant -- especially when I know that, once I start moving again, the next stage of my travels will once again be more hectic and less relaxed. So I'm enjoying being comfortable while I can, without getting complacent.

*Legitimate things such as solidifying my understanding of various subjunctive tenses in Spanish, taking private salsa lessons, and getting help with the start of my next weaving project. :)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lessons from Guatemala, Part III

Click here for Part I and Part II.

21. Guatemalan falafel tastes better if you pretend it's something -- just about anything -- else.

22. Getting lost is much more fun with a companion, and much more interesting if you have different understandings about where you're trying to end up.

23. Dancing with "the best salsa dancer in Guatemala" is not as fun as dancing with friends.

24. The two basic rules of salsa dancing are:
1. The man's job is to make the woman feel good.
2. The woman's job is to make the man look good.

Unfortunately, most Guatemalan men seem to be unaware of the first rule.

25. If you get pounded by a giant wave in the sea and hit the sand, be thankful that at least you know which way is up and that you have something to push off of to get back to the surface after the wave passes.

26. To avoid #25 in the first place, dive early and dive deep.

27. You know the chicken bus is going around corners too fast when the driver leans into the curves.

28. Lemon-salted peanuts make one of the best hiking snacks ever.

29. When you know you're going to be climbing a volcano starting at midnight on Saturday, it is probably best not to dance for several hours in heels on Friday night and go for a 5-mile hill hike on Saturday morning. Oh, and bring lots of warm clothes -- it's freezing at the top before sunrise!

30. Salsa dancing really is better in heels.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hostels, Hot Chocolate, & Homing Instincts

Journal excerpts, August 16, 2008. Entries written in the restaurant punctuated (of course) by comments about my food.

6:20 p.m., Restaurante La Taquería, Xela

I made it to Xela at last! It was a nearly three-hour chicken bus ride, but I miraculously had a seat to myself the entire time, so I wasn't scrunched. The minibus ride from the Minerva Terminal was a different story, however -- I had to manhandle my pack all the way to the far back corner, and then share the seat with it because they still expected to get the same number of bodies in the back seat. Fortunately, it wasn't a terribly long bus ride, and only cost Q3.

***The waitress just brought me two bowls of salsa and a basket with three chips in it. The chips are about 3mm thick, though, so it's an entirely sufficient appetizer.***

I am attempting to withhold judgment on Xela until I've been here for a few days and had a chance to get used to it, rather than let myself be instantly overwhelmed by the fact that I'm once again in a large city and have no idea how to find my way around.

***My chicken and spinach enchiladas just arrived -- three of them! For Q28! (about $4) Yum!***

I'm finding it difficult to reserve judgment on my hostel, however. Casa Argentina was described by my guidebook as "Xela's definitive budget choice," but I'm inclined to believe that that's not so much because it's the best choice so much as it's the only choice for super-low cost accommodation. Figuring I might get a chance to meet some people, I asked for the dormitorio, which turned out to be one very large room absolutely packed wall-to-wall with 23 single beds (one with a top bunk), all jammed right against each other except for a very narrow path between the outer ring and the inner mass. No place to put one's belongings except right in this narrow path, which would block it entirely. Fortunately, there were only a few people there (and I hope to goodness that it stays that way!), so I pretty much had my choice of beds, which came down to a decision between:
1. Easily accessible but right next to the door and the bathroom (noise and stink and security issues);
2. A far corner I'd have to navigate my way toward carefully, but which might be a bit quieter/safer; or
3. Turn around and find a different hostel.
I chose option 2, mostly because I was too tired to walk any further with my pack. I decided to give it a chance for one night, but am scouting out other options for tomorrow. Oh, and there's a bathroom in the room, but it didn't have either toilet paper or running water. I tried the next sink down the hall and the tap came off in my hand. So the closest functioning sink is down the hall, down the stairs, and down another half a hall. Sigh.

8:45 p.m., Casa Argentina

While wandering back towards the Plaza after dinner I stumbled upon the Café y Museo La Luna, which I had read about in my guidebook (seven different kinds of drinking chocolate, open weekends only, 4-9 p.m.) and had planned to investigate tomorrow. But since I was there already, I decided to pop my head in and see what it was like, and ended up poking around looking at all the wonderful old things they had on display -- from Mayan artifacts to old sewing machines, meat grinders, cash registers, cameras, irons, you name it -- and then ordering myself a "Chocolate Francés" and sitting down and spending a delightful half hour drinking chocolate and reading my table. Yes, reading my table. All of the tables in La Luna are covered in old (as in, 1890's-1940's) newspaper clippings, which are always a hoot to read, though a bit more of a challenge when they're in Spanish. My table had poetry, funny love quotes, remedies for removing stains from all manner of things and for keeping eggs fresh (for up to a year!), obituaries, lawyers' advertisements, and random facts. It was a small square table, and I just kept standing up and moving to the next side to sit in a new chair and read from there. It was a highly enjoyable evening, and the hot chocolate was good, too. :)

I've been studying my guidebook's map of central Xela and trying to plant a picture of the layout in my head so I don't always have to be pulling out my guidebook and looking like a lost tourist, especially at night in the dark. I was proud of myself in that I managed to get all the way back to the hostel without looking at my map, though I did get a bit worried when I went too far after coming out of La Luna, and started walking up relatively dark, steep, deserted streets. But I kept going purposefully (the main thing is to look like you know where you're going), keeping my eyes peeled for street signs (there aren't enough to go around in Guatemala, so you have to take them when you can get them), and as soon as I saw one I was able to set myself back on the right course. Cristie would have been proud. :)

There is a beautiful full moon tonight, peeking in and out of the clouds. It is shining on a big city, or at least, big to my eyes, looking at it from the third-story walkway of my hostel. I feel small here. I want to give Xela a chance, but I may just not be a big city person (and this isn't really a big city in the grand scheme of things).

Bed time now (yes, it's still early). First task tomorrow: find myself a new hostel. Well, maybe after breakfast.

.... P.S. My pillow feels like it's been chewed up, spat out, and stuck back together with silly putty. I think I'll fold up my fleece and use it instead.

Lessons from Guatemala, Part II

Part I can be found here.

11. Whenever possible, eat market food.

12. Traffic lights here have three colors, but four signals per cycle:
Green: Go ahead, barrel through the intersection.
Flashing Green: Hurry up, the light is about to turn yellow.
Yellow: Last chance to gun it before the light turns red.
Red: Sucker! Wait impatiently for the next green.

13. If you're lucky enough to get a hot shower, avoid touching the showerhead while the water is running... unless you enjoy mild electric shocks.

14. The difference between a minibus and a microbus is that in a minibus there's just enough room for extra passengers to stand between your knees and the seat in front of you,and in the microbus they all pile into the space behind the front seat and along the side. Both can still "seat" up to 25 passengers.

15. Saying "no" to a trio of winsome young girls trying their hardest to sell you beautiful scarves is possible, but very, very difficult.

16. Always carry diarrhea-combating medicine in your first aid kit, because if you really need it, you won't be able to make it to a pharmacy to buy it.

17. Wear a good, supportive bra when traveling by chicken bus (or lancha).

18. If you absolutely must jaywalk across a large, busy highway, try to make it at least halfway across before you have to pause.

19. Mobile ice cream stands in Guatemala play the same music as ice cream trucks in the states.

20. A young Guatemalan boy standing up in a wildly careening minibus can make change faster and more accurately than a college graduate with a cash register back home.

Friday, August 15, 2008


July 30, 2008

If you ever find yourself in Lívingston, Guatemala (on the Caribbean coast), go straight to the Restaurante Bahía Azul and order the tapado. It may be the most expensive thing on the menu (Q90, or about $13), but, by golly, it´s worth it. In fact, to my mind, it´s pretty much the only reason to go to Lívingston at all (illustrated by the fact that I´m not even going to bother writing about the rest of our experience there). Incidentally, if you do ever find yourself in Lívingston, Guatemala, don´t even think about staying (notice I didn´t say "sleeping," or "showering," or even "flushing the toilet") at the Hotel Río Dulce.

My guidebook describes the meal thus: "Tapado is probably the region´s signature dish, a seafood soup that´s a superb mix of fish (typically snapper), prawns, coconut milk, peppers, plantain and spices." Cristie and I shortened it to: "Wow."

That tapado was one of the more complicated and adventurous meals either of us had ever eaten, and the meal was punctuated by disbelieving exclamations and peals of laughter as we continually unearthed new discoveries in our bowls. The plantain was absent, but just about everything else you could imagine was there -- fish, clams, crab, whole shrimp (including the heads and googly black eyes, which we weren´t brave enough to swallow), squid, and probably more that I either can´t remember or we couldn´t identify.

Now, let me clarify two things. When I say there was fish in the tapado, I mean there was a fish in the tapado. As in, a whole fish, draped across the bottom of the bowl, with its head (eyes, teeth and all) peeking out on one side and its tail on the other. (We ate around our fishes for a while, marveling at them, then finally broke down and asked the waitress how on earth we were supposed to eat them. She pulled the plates out from beneath our soup bowls and told us to lif the fishes out of the soup and eat them off the plates. Of course!) And when I say there was crab in the tapado, I mean there was an entire crab in the tapado. I was practically crying with laughter when I discovered my crab, because I had foolishly assumed that it was just a few crab legs floating around in the broth, and that I had discovered everything there was to be discovered.

Ah, tapado memories. Photos and videos will eventually be up on Flickr, and I´ll try to remember to put a note back here when they are.

Update: Photos and videos from Lívingston are up! They can be found here.

Finca Ixobel

July 28-30, 2008

According to the Rough Guide to Guatemala, "Finca Ixobel is a supremely beautiful and relaxing place," where "many travelers are quickly seduced by the tranquil nature of the finca and end up staying much longer than planned." Cristie and I managed to escape after only two nights, but we were constantly discovering reasons that travelers get lured into long-term stays.

First of all, our accommodation was a tree house. How cool is that? It wasn´t literally built in a tree, but more like a little room on stilts nestled into the trees. It was just large enough for two beds side by side. One bed slid under the other during the day, and when it came out at night it completely blocked the door -- no slipping off silently for midnight runs to the bathroom! The porch was just long
enough and wide enough for a narrow bench and a hammock, which we made full use of -- as, apparently, did an ambitious frog, who I inadvertantly sat upon early one morning as I settled down to write in my journal. Fortunately, he seemed none the worse for it, though perhaps a trifle startled (as was I!).

Secondly, the food was amazing -- great variety (no traditional Guatemalan food here), well cooked, huge portions, and mouth-wateringly delicious. They grow a lot of their own food at the finca, and bake all of their own breads and pastries (including heavenly cinnamon rolls with at least 7 wraps). For dinner the first night I had the vegetarian main dish, which was chick peas in wine sauce, and Cristie had stuffed rolled beef. Side dishes included bread, salad, roasted potatoes (the potatoes in Guatemala are amazing!), and ratatoille. It´s no wonder dinner was more expensive than accommodation! (though a huge plate with all those items was still only Q45, or about $6.)

We didn´t participate in any of the organized activities the finca offered, but we did decide to check out one of the self-guided hikes advertised in the reception area. There is a large hill/small mountain behind the finca called Cerro Ixobel (Ixobel Hill), but more commonly known as The Pyramid because its profile against the sky is an almost perfect triangle. Directions for the hike were simpleÑ just walk past the parrot enclosure and past the horses, then follow the yellow arrows. Simple in theory. In practice, we were very glad we´d changed our skirts and sandals for hiking boots, because the ascent up The Pyramid turned out to be about 1/8 hiking, 3/8 clambering, 5/8 rock climbing, and 2/8 sweating buckets. (Yes, Mom, that one went up to eleven.) No switchbacks to speak of, just a trail (if it can be called that) straight up the mountainside. Fortunately, there were plenty of rocks and trees and roots to assist us in our clambering, and in about an hour we made it to the top, where we found a small flattish area mostly covered in trees, through which we could peek to catch lovely views of the finca and marvel at how high we´d climbed. We were pleasantly surprised at how much easier the descent was than we´d anticipated, but still glad to get to the bottom and go for a dip in the pond.

Other Finca Ixobel highlights included:

- Laundry! A desperately necessary chore after the sweat and stickiness of Tikal. (And, besides, I enjoy washing my clothes by hand.)

- Fireflies, countless stars, and the Milky Way

- A very silly game of Cranium which eventually involved everybody at the bar, and which my team lost dismally

- One salsa dance (in sandals on a concrete floor past my bedtime, which is why there weren´t more)

- Re-meeting nice people we´d met at Tikal (remember the family that bought us limonadas for Cristie´s birthday?) and meeting new nice people, connecting with fellow travelers

And some final thoughts, excerpted from my journal, 7/29...

This is a wonderful place to be, and I can definitely understand why people get sucked in and stay for a long time. At the same time, however, one can easily have pretty much the same resort-like experience pretty much anywhereñ Finca Ixobel happens to be in Guatemala, but there is nothing that really identifies it as Guatemalan other than its location. Most of the more visible staff members are volunteers who came as visitors and liked it so much they decided to stay on; the food isn´t traditional Guatemalan fare for the most part (no matter how delicious it is); and the "culture" of the place is very much a vactationer´s resort type of culture, rather than any sort of local Guatemalan culture. So, it´s great for a while, and I might be tempted to stay and volunteer for a bit if Cristie weren´t here, but at the same time I know this is not what I´m looking for, this is not why I´m traveling. Perhaps as a break down the road, if my other traveling experiences get too intense and I need a vacation, but for now it will be good to move out of the world of the vacationer and back into the world of the traveler.

On The Road

Excerpt from my journal, July 28, describing the journey from Flores to Finca Ixobel. (Side note on pronunciation: "x" is pronounced as kind of a soft "sh" or "zh" - so "Ixobel" sounds like "Izhobel".)

The trip to Finca Ixobel was highly amusing -- who says you can´t experience true local culture if you´re not on a chicken bus? We bought our tickets from a travel agent in Flores, who arranged a shuttle taxi service to Santa Elena (just across the causeway), where we caught the 15-passenger minibus that would take us to the Finca. When we left the bus terminal there were four passengers, the driver, and two young men (ayudantes, or "helpers") hanging out the open side door shouting, "Poptún, a Poptún!" to rustle up more passengers (Poptún was the main town closest to where we were headed).

We drove really slowly through town (like, molasses slow), and then straight into a major market street which did not look like it was meant for buses -- narrow and winding, one-lane with market stalls on either side and people milling about everywhere. And when we got to the very center, we parked for about ten minutes while the ayudantes called out for more passengers, and young children approached the bus trying to sell sodas and snacks, and random people got on board and sat down for a few minutes simply because it was ever-so-slightly cooler in the bus than it was outside. Cristie commented that "Guatemala is a place where, a lot of the time, I have no idea what´s going on." It brilliantly summed up the afternoon.

We finally filled up the bus and departed for Poptún, picking up more and more passengers along the way (did I mention we were full when we left?) -- they either crowded into other peoples´seats or simply stood up between the seats -- thankfully, the bus had a tall ceiling, and was much roomier than some of the other microbuses we´ve been in. At its max, we counted 26 people (including an infant on a lap) in that 15-passenger bus! It was pretty exciting; we could scarcely believe it when the ayudantes kept calling for more passengers. At one point, three young women wanted to get on, but when they saw that there were no seats left they said they didn´t want to. The main ayudante pretty much told the three men in the seat in front of us to get up, and they did, giving up their seats and standing so the girls could sit. It was a very interesting and informative bus ride.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Market Metaphors, or, Nausea Nightmares

August 13, 2008

Notes to self:
1. Don´t drink the carrot juice if you´re not sure how (or if) the carrots have been washed/peeled.
2. Anti-diarrhea medication on a completely empty stomach may or may not be worth the potential side effects.

I´ve been in bed for two days. Well, no, that´s not entirely true -- I´ve made it to the toilet several dozen times, and this morning I actually managed to get dressed and go out for a whole hour (most of which I spent sitting down), though it took a three-hour nap afterwards for me to recover. But, in essence, I´ve been in bed for two days, recovering from the unpleasant (and, initially, bright orange) side effects of a giant glass of fresh carrot juice I probably shouldn´t have drunk. At least I have a private room, with super-nice Danish neighbors who went to the store and bought me water and crackers in the pouring rain last night.

My main problem the first day and night was nausea. Pain I can handle. Diarrhea I can cope with. Nausea, on the other hand, is a completely different beast, and one I am poorly equipped to fight. I managed to fend it off during the day by remaining horizontal at all times when not in, or on my way to or from, the bathroom, but there was a major battle on Tuesday night, when the fight went from the physical realm to the mental realm, and I had to overcome the nausea in the dream world.

The scene was a Guatemalan textiles market in chaos. My job had something to do with making sense of it, though it was not at all clear how I was supposed to go about it. The only thing I knew was that my ability to keep myself from vomiting in real life was inextricably linked to my ability to sort out this market in dream-life. It was a long, rough night.

Nothing behaved as it should. Piles of scarves, shawls, blankets and other goods covered every surface so that all I could see was a never-ending sea of fabric. I shopped, I haggled, I arranged piles of cloth in different ways, but things always seemed to jump back into place -- or all the way across the market -- as soon as I glanced away, so that my progress was always one step forward, two steps back. After three hours (real time - I was awake enough to look at my clock), I was practically crying with frustration, and had made up my mind to just get up, throw up, and have done with it, but somehow the dream wouldn´t entirely let me go, and sucked me back into the market.

I finally realized that I was going about things all wrong. Rather than simply rearranging things at the market (a mimicry of how the nausea was rearranging my insides), I had to actually get rid of them, to make them disappear so that they could no longer plague me. I became very methodical, working quickly to create piles of similar products and then obliterate them before they could perform their tricks on me. I´m not quite sure how I did this, but it took a huge mental effort. After a while, though, things became a bit more manageable -- I could see patches of ground beneath the piles of cloth, things became easier to organize, somehow simpler, and eventually it reached the point where whoever was in charge was satisfied and let me go. I slept hard the rest of the night (12 hours in total) and woke up weak, sore and mentally exhausted, but nausea-free.

I´m not sure why the Guatemalan textiles market became the metaphor for my nausea; perhaps because it is one of the most complicated, organic, and unfathomable systems I have encountered in Guatemala so far. Thank goodness I didn´t dream about the public transportation system, whichis the other!

08/14/08 Recovering slower than I´d like. Trying to make myself eat something other than crackers. I foresee another day or two in Panajachel.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New Beginnings

Excerpts from today´s journal:

7:30 a.m.

Today´s Angel Card: Birth. The last four days, my Angel Cards have been alternating between Compassion and Birth. I suppose it´s appropriate - Cristie leaves this morning for Guatemala City (and home on Tuesday), so after 10:00 today I´m on my own, beginning my solo adventure. It is a kind of rebirth, and I´m sure it will take compassion and patience.

10:18 a.m.

Well, I just walked back to the hostel after getting Cristie onto the bus for Antigua and Guate. I am now officially on my own, and I need to spend some time working out how I feel about it. There are parts of me that are sad, nervous, excited, reflective, tired, anxious, eager, tentative, jubilant, calculating and recalculating in turn. But I woke up alert and joyous this morning - "awake and ready!" as they would say at Ananda - and I want to focus on that feeling and remember that sensation.

1:30 p.m.

Cristie admonished me not to hole up in my room by myself after she left, and with good reason - that´s definitely going to be a tendency I´ll have to work on overcoming. I took a (hot!) shower and spent a couple of hours sorting through photos, reflecting, and thinking about next steps, and then, when I finally felt like I really needed food, decided to venture out for lunch and an afternoon of uploading photos at the internet café (yes, still a very solitary activity, but it´s a start). I´m treating myself to a licuado de fresa with lunch, and it´s delicious - with actual chunks of fresh strawberries! On the other hand, the sopa del día that was just brought out bears a remarkable resemblance to Campbell´s vegetable soup. :P

It´s funny, walking down Calle Santander (the main drag here in Panajachel) is an entirely different experience without Cristie. We spent almost two days walking around Pana together, mostly on this street, and it´s odd now to walk it alone. I noticed a definite tendency to walk faster on my way to find lunch, but almost immediately realized that doing so created a shell around me - I wasn´t really looking at what was going on around me, wasn´t noticing details or watching faces or admiring goods for sale. There was a definite dulling of my perception, which has felt so keep these last few weeks, and I didn´t like it at all. It was as if I´d suddenly become more vulnerable and was trying to protect myself by withdrawing into invisibility. All of that hit me in the space of a few blocks, and gave me a sharp reality check, a taste of what I´m going to be up against in traveling with myself. I need to practice presence and attention, with "constant vigilance!" to full experience. It is okay for me to spend time alone, but when I´m out and about in the world I want to be fully present.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Serenades and Ceremonies

Excerpt from my journal, 9:30 a.m.:

The town of Santa Cruz del Quiché did not want us to sleep in this morning. For the last several hours we have been serenaded (if that can possibly describe the experience) by a cacophany of drums, marimbas and trumpets that sound as if they´re just outside our hotel, each apparently playing along to its own beat. It reminds me of the Hogwarts school anthem, which Dumbledore directed everybody to sing to whatever tune they liked best. We´re going out to investigate shortly.

Unfortunately, the music stopped by the time we made it outside, so we never found out what it was. But we set off on a walk to find the ruins and caves of Utatlán, which turned out to be a beautiful walk along winding roads through the country. We couldn´t actually wander around the ruins much because there were some Mayan ceremonies going on, so we did our best to stay respectfully unobtrusive. We were kind of bummed that we didn´t get to explore the caves or get close to the temples, but at the same time we both thought it was a much more unique experience to be able to witness a bit of true Mayan culture. It is amazing and wonderful that they are still using these old sites for traditional rituals and ceremonies.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lessons from Guatemala, Part I

Cristie and I are learning a lot in our travels through Guatemala. Here are some of the lessons we have come across (I am sure I will be posting future volumes as well):

1. There is an easy way and a hard way to get into a sleep sheet in a hammock.

2. Never, ever assume you have a clue about what´s going on, especially where transportation is concerned.

3. Always check your hammock for frogs before sitting down.

4. A 15-passenger van holds far more than 15 passengers (as in, say, 26).

5. Wear a bathing suit on the trip from Río Dulce to Livingston - there are hot springs on the way, complete with what might be pirhannas.

6. If arriving in Antigua in the rain, wear either sandals or waders, as you will have to ford numerous rivers to get to your hostel and your hiking boots will be soaked in street juice otherwise.

7. No matter where you are, you´re never far from a bag of Doritos, even halfway up an active volcano.

8. No matter what restaurant you eat in, your food may still come from down the street.

9. When buying chili-spiced mango, always buy at least one bag per person, then sit down to savor the experience.

10. Accept the fact that you have no idea what´s going on, and go with the flow (I know, I mentioned this one already, but it´s so important it deserves another appearance).

Monday, July 28, 2008


Saturday was Cristie´s birthday, and we set off for Tikal in the morning (our 9:00 minibus was only about half an hour late). When we arrived we found the camping area, a grassy field with a series of wall-less thatched huts around the edges. We found the person in charge, a wonderful man named Gonzalo, who strung up hammocks for us, complete with built-in mosquito nets (a very neccessary addition). Sleeping in a hammock surrounded by Guatemalan jungle is a pretty cool experience. The stars were amazing, the bugs serenaded us all night, the howler monkeys started up around 3:00 a.m., and the birds around 4:00 a.m. There were ocellated turkeys wandering around the field in the afternoon -- they´re sort of like turkeys trying to be peacocks. We also saw pisotes, or coatis, funny-looking anteaters with pointy snouts and long monkey-like tails, that climbed trees and ran around on the ground. At one point we came across an entire herd of them - about 30 in all, complete with a bunch of young ones. There was also a funny jungle guinea pig called a sereque (I have no idea if that´s how you spell it) that ran around looking for trash. Its hind end looked like a capybara´s, but its head looked like a giant rat´s. I love seeing new animals. :D

We discovered that the price of admission to the ruins has gone up significantly since the time my guidebook was published (from $6.75 to about $22 per day), but that if we bought tickets after 4:00 p.m., they were good for the rest of the day (until 6:00) and also for the next day. So we visited museums and wandered around and napped for a few hours, then bought our tickets at 4:00 and took our first hike in to see the ruins.

I don´t know that it is possible to convey an impression of the Tikal ruins in words if the reader hasn´t been there. Any photos you may have seen do not do them justice, and words like "impressive" or "amazing" or "magnificent" just seem like understatements. The ruins are all of this and more. We were a bit surprised at the extent to which people are allowed to just climb all over the pyramids, but at the same time, it was incredible to climb up and sit at the tops of the temples and look out over the jungle, seeing the tops of other temples looming up out of the trees, listening to the birds and the howler monkeys. Some of the temples we could just climb straight up the steps -- very very steep steps -- and others had staircases constructed along the sides to get tourists to the top. The staircase up Templo V was almost as steep as a ladder, and had 105 steps. Going up was easy, going down not so fun.

We discovered that a lot of the most interesting places were around the back of the structures, where we found all sorts of chambers and passageways and staircases. One of our favorite places (which we found on Sunday) was the Palacio de las Acanaladuras, where we found a bunch of bats in a number of the chambers. While we were exploring it, a Guatemalan gentleman walked up, and recognized us from our trip to the museum the day before (he had asked if we were sisters, commenting that we had similar noses, and we told him we´re cousins). He told us that the Palacio had been a sort of Mayan monastary, and pointed out the separate chambers at the back for men and women, and told us that there was a space around the back that was used for massage and other healing arts. He told us that he was a traditional Mayan priest, and so he enjoys walking around the ruins. Apparently Saturday had been a major Mayan holiday, and he had been in there performing ceremonies.

We hiked around for 2 hours on Saturday and 8 hours on Sunday (not counting the time we spent coming out of the park for lunch, complete with enormous and very welcome glasses of limonada), and still didn´t see everything there was to see. We climbed a LOT of stairs, took a LOT of photos and a few videos (which I will attempt to post on Flickr soon, when I actually have my memory card reader with me at an internet cafe), and met a bunch of nice people. I am really glad that I went to English Week right before this trip, and got my legs nice and strong, because I´m not sore at all today.

There is much more to write about Tikal, but I don´t have my journal with me and I´m running out of time, so it will have to wait. I´ll post photos and videos when I can. :)

ATM Adventures

Where to start? Cristie and I have been in Guatemala for only 3 days, and it feels like we´ve been here a month. Today is a mellow day, because we´ve been doing a lot of running around the last several days. The two main goals we set for ourselves today were to get cash and to make our way 100 km south to La Finca Ixobel, our next stop.

Getting cash has proven to be a much more arduous task than either of us expected. We figured we´d be landing in an international airport in a large Central American city, so we´d have no problem finding an ATM. Well, the one ATM in the airport was broken. Fortunately, the taxi drivers accepted US dollars (the person from our hostel who was supposed to pick us up never showed up), and our hostel also accepted dollars, so we didn´t have to go in search of quetzales (the Guatemalan currency) until the morning. That first morning (Friday), we walked around the neighborhood trying various ATMS -- we broke one, which completely shut down and rebooted on Windows XP, which cracked us up -- until we finally found one that both functioned and accepted MasterCard debit cards. (We realized that we use the same bank and have the same debit and credit cards, so we´re kind of in a fix if they don´t work...)

That first ATM escapade lasted about 45 minutes. This morning we set off on another, since we´re not likely to be able to get cash anywhere in the next several days. We stayed last night in Flores, a small island in the middle of a small lake, connected to the town of Santa Elena by a 2-lane causeway. There is one ATM on the island, and it was not functioning this morning, so we walked across the causeway to Santa Elena in search of another. The first one we found didn´t work either, but a nice gentleman (who also needed cash) led the way to La Despensa Familiar, an all-purpose grocery store that had an ATM. He tried it first and said it didn´t work, but we saw somebody else extracting cash from it a few minutes later, so we tried and succeeded in securing enough cash to last us a while. I think we were lucky that it only took three tries! We´re beginning to realize that we´re going to have to plan our ATM trips in advance, and allow plenty of time for them! :)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Adventure Begins

I'm off to Guatemala today! Cristie and I will head first to Tikal, to celebrate her birthday on Saturday (happy birthday, Cristie!), and then wander happily around the rest of the country for a few weeks. After she leaves, I'll take some Spanish lessons in the Western Highlands, and then see where life leads me. I'll post when I can! :)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

English Week

Due to time constraints (I fly to Guatemala in 17 hours!), I'm not posting a great deal about English Week. The quick rundown of highlights (and lowlights):

- Doing 3/4 of a backflip in the meadow during the Scottish Highland Games on Monday afternoon. (AKA, a backflipflop.) Many factors were involved, including mismatched shoulder heights, a potato, and a pair of pantyhose. We won't get into the details. A few days later, kind folks remarked that the scrapes all around my left eye gave me a "rakish" look. I went to Dr. Shawn, Mom and Graham's chiropractor, when I got back. He managed to adjust my neck, but was stymied by my mid-back, and told me to come in again before I left for a free session where he'd try again. I went back today, where he poked and prodded and proclaimed that my neck was composed of rebar, but managed to yank on it in such a way that my mid-back finally sorted itself out.

- Learning a really cool Scottish hard shoe step dance, that resulted in my calves being better defined than I think they've ever been (it's about 4 1/2 minutes of being up on one's toes, with stepping and hopping and "deedle-deedles" throughout).

- Going into Mendocino and taking over a sidestreet to dance in town for part of an afternoon. We had learned a 3-person reel in the border morris class, and had been practicing it with three sets in a small hall, but when Dave and Jonathan and I danced it in town we took up about half a block - it was excellent.

- Lots of lovely evening dances, and fun after-parties. I think I managed about 6-7 hours of sleep a night (I had a 7 am chore to wake up for), which was just enough to get me through. No time for naps, though - too many fun things to do!

- And, possibly the coolest moment - Jonathan and I made up a two person rapper dance skit and performed it at the back porch gathering on Friday afternoon. We were very proud of ourselves. Video below:

Now I'm all inspired to dance more, and to come back to Portland and dance with Iron Mountain Sword again, so Jonathan and I can work up the double front flip. :P

But for now, another adventure calls... back to packing!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Take Now

There was a moment full of Time
when I gazed into the ocean of my own eyes
and saw Forever staring back at me -
Now is my chance, Now
I must take it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shoes to Fill

This is not the sentiment I expected to come up on Father's Day (and it isn't actually directed toward my father), but up it came. I don't know how to explain this poem, or even if I should - it is what it is, and it is filled with love and respect despite outward appearances.

I've followed in your footsteps more than once
but only halfway.
Always a step behind, never quite catching up
to your expectations.
Your shoes are too large for my feet to fill,
your height too tall for me to measure up, even on tip-toe,
to look you in the eye and tell you --
I wanted with all my heart to be just like you
and believe me, I tried.
But the shoes don't fit
and they don't belong to me.
Will you let me tie my own shoes instead
and walk beside you?

Happy father's day to all my fathers and father figures - I love you all, and look forward to walking side by side with you for many years to come.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Maintaining Sanity Through Poetry

Have I mentioned I love magnetic words? This is SO good for me.

Monday, June 09, 2008


I found my magnetic poetry today, while packing up my kitchen. Hundreds of words jumbled together in small boxes and yogurt containers, an eclectic mix of generic, romantic, college and marine biology themes (use your imagination). I instantly had the urge to plaster them all over my refrigerator, and then pull up a chair and “write” for hours. I didn’t, but it got me thinking…

Lately (as in, the last several years), I have lamented the fact that I do not write as often or as prolifically as I used to. More troubling is the fact that, when I do write, it often seems to lack the “punch” that I used to be able to pack. I am thinking specifically of poetry here, but this also applies to prose. When I go back and read some of the things I wrote toward the end of high school, for instance, or during the first couple of years of college, I am immediately transported back to that time, and can vividly picture exactly what I was going through and how I felt. I remember people I had long since forgotten, old stories are drawn back to light and relived, and I am surprised at how purely I was able to use words to express my truth. (Keep in mind, please, that this is all entirely from my own perspective; I may occasionally share what I write with others, but it is not their critiques that I am concerned with here, but rather how I feel about my own work.)

More often nowadays, when I write it is because I feel like I should write. No, that’s not quite right. I write because I have an experience or emotion I need to take outside of myself and examine, to put into words that can explain it to myself and make it more real (or, conversely, to distance myself from it if it is so real as to be all-consuming). But it’s not the same. I coerce the words onto the paper, with much hemming and hawing and subtle revising. I write because I want to, not because I have to, not because inspiration strikes and I absolutely must pick up pencil and paper and let the words flow, scribbling until my hand cramps, heedless of sloppy handwriting or misspellings or broken chains of thought.

I have always been drawn to magnetic poetry (and I make no apologies for my choice of words here; it is entirely true). I used to spend hours in front of the refrigerator, lost in contemplation, drawing poetry out of a jumbled collection of parts of speech. Sometimes I would scan the words, choosing the ones that seemed to jump out at me, and seeing what I could make of them. Other times, when I had the skeleton of a poem in magnets, the remainder would write itself in my head, and I would search for (or sometimes painstakingly construct) the words I needed to flesh it out. Magnetic poetry was not just a game for me, an idle way to pass the time; it was a true creative endeavor, and I still believe that some of my best poetry was composed on the refrigerator. (Incidentally, I wrote down every poem I ever wrote with magnets, and I have always been grateful that I did. Some art is made to be temporary – people might argue that this is the nature of word magnets, but I disagree – once the words become poetry, they deserve to be recorded.)

I think the thing I liked so much about magnetic poetry was that it inspired creativity, offered it up on a silver platter, a write-your-own-menu feast for the imagination. Here are the words, all you have to do is give them meaning. Play with them, put them in the right order, breathe life into them, make them your own. I wrote poetry with magnets that I would never have dreamed of writing if I had had to come up with the words on my own. I expressed emotions in full view that I would never have been able to unravel in the private pages of my diary. I think the freedom that the magnetic words offered me allowed me to open myself more fully, and brought a greater freedom to my “real” writing than I would have had otherwise.

And now I find myself wondering if that is part of the reason my writing has stagnated in the last few years: I have not had these magnets on my last several refrigerators, and have not been making use of the brilliant tools they provide for unlocking my creativity. I stopped putting the magnets up on my refrigerator because I thought they made it look cluttered, but I didn’t realize that that “clutter” on the refrigerator helped to clear my mind.

And so, after all of this contemplation, and after I finished doing all of the things I was “supposed” to do today, I came home and began plastering magnetic words all over my refrigerator. Three days before I have to take them all down again when I move, but I don’t care. As soon as the words start coming out of the boxes, I can’t stop myself – the first poem begins to write itself, then the second. Soon I have four going at once, I’m looking for certain words as I pull handfuls of them from the box, and snatching at others I hadn’t thought of but that capture my imagination. I have to do this. It is an amazing feeling, this need to write. It has been far, far too long since I’ve had this feeling, and it feels so good. One random string that forms as I slap the words haphazardly onto the freezer door expresses it perfectly:

Original banter fiery write poetry poetry woman

Poetry, woman. Write poetry. So I do.

waking my heart voice
to ask the thousand questions
burning deep in my breast
one vast star blazes in eternal answer:
there are no secrets
you have always known
give joy
that is all


soft velvet and sacred smoke
cold marble and keen shards of white glass
a carefully sculpted angel
but above all
a rose
gentle and wild at once
speaking a deep red truth

I stop when I’ve written five poems, the freezer door is entirely covered with words, and I still have two boxes to go. That is enough for tonight. But you’d better believe the rest of them are coming out tomorrow.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Only Thing I Can Draw

Let me start this post by admitting that I've always been very hard on myself when it comes to my drawing ability. Hmm, let me revise that: in all honesty, my own drawings make me cringe in mingled embarrassment and frustration most of the time. My automatic response when asked to draw something is "Oh, no - I can't draw." I freeze in fear when I'm expected to sketch something on the spot, even if it's "just for fun." Because it's not fun. I have the most beautiful pictures in my head, but I am pretty much never ever ever satisfied with the way they come out when I try to put them on paper. So, sadly, I hardly ever try. And it is sad; I really really wish I could draw better; I really wish drawing didn't scare me; I really wish I weren't so judgmental about the results. But the fact remains that (at least so far in my life) I've been far too self-conscious and self-critical to even take a class - or even to practice in the privacy of my own company where nobody else will even know I tried - to improve.

But today is Drawing Day, and I've managed to ignore my inhibitions enough to actually post something I've drawn (but look quick, before I change my mind!) The only thing, in fact, that I have ever drawn with any modicum of confidence. The drawing that graced the top hole of every three-hole-punched piece of paper that passed through my hands my senior year in highschool. The thing I had tattooed on my shoulder nine years ago (though I didn't draw that one - I'm not that brave!). Have you guessed yet?

Hey, at least I can still write about drawing, even if I don't like doing it, right? :) And I am eternally grateful that I can write.


P.S. The sunflower is now in my recycling bin. Some things never change.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Confessions of a Pack-Rat

I spent the entire day yesterday in my attic. That alone is a bad sign. I don't think I should be allowed to have an attic... or a basement, or a garage, or any other large, empty space that encourages me to hold onto accumulated "stuff" simply because I have room for it. Some of it I can argue is legitimate - photo albums, craft materials that I actually use - but most of it is just "stuff." I knew I had a lot of stuff, but I was still rather appalled at some of the things I've held onto. My list of discoveries includes:

~ Crab molts. Yes, crab molts. Plural. Please don't ask me how long I've had these. A chipped sand dollar. Numerous other stones and shells, very few of them whole anymore. I stopped unwrapping them from their protective tissues and deposited the whole bundle in the trash.

~ An inch and a half of old bank statements, from the day I opened my account. Somebody's paper shredder is going to be put through its paces....

~ Every single pay stub from every single pay stub job I've ever held, including temp jobs. Truly unnecessary (but are you really surprised?).

~ Binders full of "Writer's Workshop" projects and other creative writing endeavors from about 6th grade onward. Don't get me wrong - I'm keeping these (somewhere) - but some of them are truly cringe-worthy. Take, for instance, the haiku entitled "Baby Earwig":
Oh, baby earwig,
hiding among the green leaves.
Inside a glass jar.
You get the point.

~ Boxes of correspondence. These are definitely not getting chucked either; they are far too precious. I have almost a pound and a half of letters from Quena alone, stuffed carefully into a burgeoning half-size manila envelope, which by this time (10 years!) is about as solid as a brick.

~ An entire bag of zipperfeet for a Singer sewing machine. I haven't had a Singer for 5 years, and never used the zipperfeet when I did have one.

~ Far more and far larger tablecloths than a person with one small 39" round dining table could possibly use.

~ A massive copy of Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, bearing the inscription: "To Patti Boone from Mother & Dad, Christmas 1969." It has been in the same box through at least my last six moves.

~ A pepper spray keychain that some well-meaning relative gifted me when I reached the age they thought it might be necessary. I don't think I ever even opened the package to inspect it.

~ Jim's old Killer Beez softball jersey, from a team that disintegrated a decade ago - before I ever got the chance to demonstrate that, desperate as I was to prove myself, I couldn't play softball to save my life because I was afraid of the ball.

~ The compact magnifying lens that I bought for my geology class sophomore year and have been looking for almost ever since.

Despite all of these discoveries, there are a few things I have not come across, that I was hoping against hope I had not let go, but realize now it's time to accept that they are gone. My old baseball cap, worth nothing but the memories it held, words written on the brim, washed away in the rain but still remembered. A ring from a dear friend, which I know I lost, but have always hoped would magically turn up. A packet of letters I can't imagine getting rid of but still can't find.

My landing is now strewn with boxes and bags to take to the Goodwill, my 75-liter backpack is once again filled with books to take to Powells (if I can lift it), and the boxes that remain in my attic are now organized by recipient, to be delivered at the end of June. Today I tackle my filing cabinet....