Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snap, Snap, Snap!


My computer is still not fixed, but with some borrowing and planning my time right, I have finally been able to get all of my Guatemala and Belize photos uploaded. They are all waiting to be viewed at Ryan and Ron Do the World

I have high hopes of getting my computer back by tomorrow, so look for me soon.

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Friday, January 27, 2012



I may be absent for a few more days. My main computer has been taken away for major repairs. Please don't abandon me too. It can cause me to have issues.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Three Countries in 24 Hours


All vacations have to come to an end. Some should end sooner than others. This vacation was just right. I was ready to return to Europe, not to say that I didn't appreciate all that we did or didn't do. We had to take a taxi to Belize City to the airport, another capital that has a high crime rate. 

The check in process is fostered by electronic machines to print out boarding passes, though the airport is not tremendously large. What angered me once we brought our luggage to be checked was the fact that it would only be checked as far as Miami. We would have to pick it up, go through Customs and then recheck it. WHY?? The reasoning given was this was our first port of entry into the US, but what flummoxes me is that we did not need to do this going. Our luggage was checked through to Guatemala City

American Airlines is on my Do Not Fly list unless absolutely necessary. The flight from Belize to Miami is a short couple of hours. Miami's airport is horridly huge and though we had 3 hours between flights, it took 138 minutes to get from one flight to the next leaving only28 minutes to shovel down a lunch before the next part of the journey when our boarding had started. The flight from Miami to Madrid was again one of those hideous planes with community theater experiences, not back of the seat view your own. We both skipped the movies because the sound quality was that of scratched record played on an antique record player. They don't even serve a drink of beer or booze without whipping out the credit card reader with charges that start at $6.00.

Turbulence was beyond the control of anyone but Mother Nature and she must have been having a bout of PMS. We shook, rattled, and rolled like an old television commercial for Shake and Bake chicken. Needless to say, if you are reading this, we made it to Madrid safely and early. Not that this was provident in our case, as check-in to our hotel was not until 2pm. 

We left our suitcases, and sleep deprived, wandered the city that has now been stripped of any sign of Christmas cheer, but had a blanket of early morning fog and winter chill one never associates with Spain. By noon, the hotel felt sorry for us and opened the room early. After a cold shower as there was no hot water, we napped before returning to the hot chocolate and churro cafe. Dinner was at the mini sandwich shop we had discovered in December on our walking tour. Then it was an early night, for tomorrow, we will wander the streets again before our final flight to Budapest.
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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Orange Walk With a Banana


Somehow, most of our activity was end-loaded; it occurred at the end of our vacation rather than be spread throughout. It is just the way it worked out. From Orange Walk, it is easy to book a tour to the Laminai Mayan ruins. 

Lamanai means supposedly means "submerged crocodile" in the Maya language. We later learned from our guide that Lamanai spelled as such really means underlying crocodile or potential shoes with a purse or some such thing. Lamanai is the largest, but considered the most interesting archeological site in Belize as the Lamanai temple complex sits atop the western bluff of the New River Lagoon. Surrounding it is the pristine rainforest. Lamanai was occupied continuously for over 3,000 years, which is attributed to it's remote location, causing it to be occupied far longer than most other Maya sites. Lamanai remained until at least 1,650 AD. 

Getting to the ruins involved yet another boat ride. I swear I have not been as involved in water sports as I have on this vacation. The launching dock was right by the restaurant we enjoyed last night. We had a full load of tourists from Denmark, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the two of us from Hungary. We stopped often to view various water birds, numerous lizards that were sunning themselves in the trees, and at least six crocodiles. For some, the highlight was the monkeys. Our guide/captain gave some bananas, which the monkeys came to grab and ran off. Our journey took approximately 1 1/2 hours.

After combining our group with a group of college students, our guide started the tour showing us the map of area. What was once a city covered hundreds of acres of land with just as many edifices. He announced we would be doing a 14 mile hike to see the ruins. College students are very adept at mentally computing that 14 miles are impossible to cover in the allotted time of the tour. Bless their little mathematical brains. 

The ruins which were excavated were magnificent; they were so intact. I am in awe with these ruins beyond what I saw in Tikal, but why is a mystery to me. Tikal was not to be missed either. Even not being an outdoorsy person, the hike was incredibly thrilling. A forest creates the freshest air. After hours of walking, viewing, going ooh and aah, snapping photos, we were provided with lunch. Tupperware containers are unloaded, unsealed, and a rainbow of edible color is exposed. What a treat it was to dine in these surroundings on what was closer to home cooked food than restaurant prepared. Life is great!

On the return trip, two of the British women asked the captain if we would get close to the monkeys again. He offered to try, but succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. When we were close to the jungle area where monkeys were visible, the captain gave bananas to the women while making monkey sounds. One monkey was particularly intrigued working his way from tree branch to tree branch edging closer to the boat. He had to traverse over the lagoon in order to get close enough to the boat to reach the fruit. In one major leap, we had a monkey on the boat running up and down the central aisle grabbing at bananas, but that was not the end of the story. Our furry friend ran to the captain, grabbed onto the wheel trying to steer. For further entertainment, it/he/she ran back to the people with the bananas and sat on their lap, before running along the aisle once again on two legs and flying off onto the nearest tree. 

Once we returned to town, I wanted to explore the town before dark. After six blocks of roaming, you have run out of town. We did find decent coffee shop. A steeple caught our attention, so we ventured over to the Catholic Church where the doors were wide open, but only two nuns and two lay people were sitting in pews in the front of the church. We sat in the back observing the building. Once the little group broke up, the lay woman came to introduce herself to us. Her name was Arcadia, who explained they had just finished a rosary to the founding saint of their order, which originated in Germany. Arcadia was bubblingly extroverted, a typical personality trait of Belize people. She called over the two nuns, introduced them and then insisted that she walk with us part of the way as it was getting dark out. She claimed that as a retired school teacher she knew the majority of the residents, so felt safe. However, there were some problems at times for strangers. She explained that there is a mandatory retirement at 55 years old in Belize. Is it a wonder there are so many retirees from other countries flocking here?

During our walk-about, we didn't notice too many choices for dinner, so we returned to where we ate last night. Two more incredible meals, making it a grand finale for our last night of vacation.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Tubing in Blacknss


Being this was our last day in San Ignacio, Sergio the tour company owner wanted to show his magnificence in planning our day. We had booked the cave tubing tour, not that I didn't have some trepidations about this. As I have said a multitude of times in the past, my outdoorsy day quota was used up in Cub and Boy Scouts, so anything now is pushing it.

Timing was near perfect with our guide due to pick us up at 11am, the time of check out from the hotel, it still gave us plenty of time have breakfast across the street. At the stroke of 11, Sergio was waiting to introduce our guide Ping and the driver Tony, who would take us to Jaguar Paw in the Cayo. Sergio had it worked out that the drive would take 1 1/2 hours, the tubing would last for 2 1/2 hours, we had 45 minutes for lunch, and then Tony would get us on the bus to Orange Walk. All the best laid plans.

Since I had been ill the day before, I slept the entire trip; there wasn't much enthusiasm running through my veins for this great adventure. Once we were at the location, we were issued a head light like a miner would wear and a heavy duty inner tube. After being directed to change in the rooms provided, we emerged in bathing suits and t-shirts with the recommended shoes.

"Now, we will have an hour hike through the jungle", Ping informed us. An hour, I questioned? Sergio said it was half that at most. Hike is a dirty four letter word in my list of nasty things that should never be uttered in pleasant company, nor mine. Ping explained that there was a shorter route, but that also meant a shorter tubing experience. Throughout the walk/hike/excursion/ramble Ping pointed out different medicinal plants the locals who are in the know, use for remedies. I wasn't sure how to interpret his telling us about the one plant that was better than Viagra. He was so informative, the trail whizzed by without breaking a sweat.

What was a bit creepy and not my favorite part was walking into pitch black caves where we barely have room to stand upright. Claustrophobia wanted to creep in, but I held it at bay. The sights that dripping water can produce over time is remarkable. We passed one turn-off which could have led us to the river, but Ping had a longer hike in mind. He promised this would extend our river ride by a considerable amount of time.

When we reached the river where we were going to enter, we secured our life vests, put on our head lamps and hopped into our inner tubes. We were warned that when we heard Ping yell "Butts UP!" he meant it as the water was shallow in spots and we would be getting butt burn on rocks if we didn't pay attention. To keep us together, he anchored Ron's feet under my arms and then he used his foot to hold on to my tube, while using his arms to paddle and direct us in and out of caves. When we were in the caves, it was black, so we used our lights. Ping described everything. The adventure was staggeringly wonderful. By the time we reached the spot where we were to get off of our tube and leave the river, I was resistant. I wanted to stay for another hour or more.

After getting changed into dry clothes, we had a sack lunch ready for us and sat around talking to the locals who were selling drinks and trinkets. At the appointed time, Tony had us on the street with out luggage sitting on the road, ready to flag down our bus to Orange Walk. Tony spoke to a number of people who had a number of different ideas about our bus. The consensus was that the bus we had planned on would not stop for us on the roadside, because it was an express. This put Tony into a dither, not knowing what to do, but knowing he was in charge of getting us on the bus or else. Bus after bus passed us by, spewing roadside dust in our faces while the sun beat down evaporating any moisture we may have collected from the river. We waited. We waited some more. 

Tony panicked and made calls, but still nothing definitive. After an hour passed and knowing there are only 2 buses a day to Orange Walk, he hailed a bus that was speeding by. The destination sign was not Orange Walk, but Tony confirmed it would stop there. The driver's assistant put our luggage underneath, but there was only one seat on the whole bus.

I made Ron sit while I stood by his side. We still had 2 hours to drive and being an express bus, we were not expecting a number of stops to relieve the seats of their occupants. After an hour, I was saved. We stopped and while a man jumped on, a woman got off. He took my seat. The driver's assistant saw what happened and made the man get up to give me the seat. He had to stand for the next hour. 

Orange Walk is even smaller than San Ignacio and more 3rd world looking as well. The population is 13,400. The hotel we were at Hotel de la Fuente was especially nice and the young clerk gave us the suggestion to visit a new restaurant for dinner, the Paniscea Restaurant and Event Center. Dinner was so excellent, we had to gush our delight to the owners. They had just opened New Year's Eve.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Orange You Glad You Went?


You know how it is when someone really build up a movie or a book, but by the time you experience it, disappointment sets in? We had read about this market called Orange where you can find the best of Belize souvenirs all in one place. The entire time we were in Guatemala when I was hovering over a potential sale, Ron would say "Remember we still have Belize and the Orange Market." 

This kept me at bay some of the time, but over eighteen years, I have learned one travel truth for certain. Don't listen when someone says to you, "You will probably see this all over. Do you really want to carry it around with you now?" I don't know how many times, I never did see the item ever again. This is one of Ron's favorite sentences when his budget radar kicks in alerting him that I am about to spend money. 

We had intended to stop at Orange on the way back from the Belize Zoo yesterday. However, the bus ride was much longer than expected, we spent over 2 hours at the zoo, and the ride back would have taken us into the dark of night. We thought tomorrow is another day with nothing planned. We will spend part of the day at Orange. We mentioned this to Sergio, the owner of Destiny Travel in Flayva's Restaurant. We bought our tour tickets from him. He offered us a ride if we would leave at 11am. He was on his way to the Belize Airport to pick up people and Orange was on his way.

For reassurance, I asked Sergio if Orange was all that was said about it. He went on and on about how massive it was, that any handicraft ever made in Belize was available there and many of the items were only on sale at Orange and no where else. Exclusivity is my cup of tea, so I was salivating while making certain my wallet was fully stuffed ready for heavy duty action.

It took close to forty-five minutes to drive to Orange. We had passed it on the bus, but I had only a quick glimpse. Orange is associated with a motel and restaurant. When we passed on the bus, my assumption was the one floor orange colored building we were flying by was the restaurant and the actual market was down the road a piece. Wrong! When Sergio pulled up, it was the market. It took ten seconds to realize that the diamond I had come to expect was only zirconium.

Situated room by room, the first was all jewelry, never on my shopping list. The next contained leather products, the type similar to the craft kit children get to make mommy a coin purse. This was followed by textiles. We did our share of textile purchases in Guatemala, so no thank you here. The only thing that interested me was pointed out by a sharp saleswoman. It was a salve for bug bites to stop the itch. Hmmm... here is was twenty Belize dollars. In town, it was only ten. Pass on that too. I covered this 'fabulous' market in ten minutes time and was in the restaurant ordering a coffee. If there hadn't been a few trinkets in town I had been holding off on buying, I would have been disappointed. It was an experience, but not one worth recommending. 

We waited for the bus to roll by to flag down. It was hot with little offerings of shade. The bus ride was unremarkable and upon our arrival, we did not find Betti. We went back to the hotel to read. Within a minute, I became ill. It was like turning on a light switch. Ron was still on the balcony at the front of the building while I was at the back of the building in our room dying. I now have a general idea of what labor is like. I sweat 2 liters of water in ten minutes. After I flopped to the floor, I curled into a fetal position that even a Yogi master would have appreciated. My stomach felt like it was being excised from my body with a rusty can opener. The whole ordeal continued for over an hour. I couldn't drag myself out to the front to say my good-byes to Ron. I knew these were my last breathes and didn't even have the last rush of energy to scrawl out a parting note. 

By the time he returned to the room, I had been sound asleep having climbed onto the bed from the floor like it were Mount Everest. He had no idea that I had traveled alone to hell and back, so he proposed we go find a happy hour and then dinner.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bus, Buzz, and Bites


Trying to maximize the experience in San Ignacio, we searched far and wide for things to do. There is the same challenge here as there would be in trying to find 50 ways to entertain yourself on a 6 square foot area of a beach. It takes imagination and critical thinking.

One highlight that Ron had read about outside of this berg was the Belize Zoo. Getting there was a cultural experience in itself. The 'bus station' in San Ignacio is an oversized dirt lot along the river. There are no buildings associated with buses, bus tickets, or schedules. The lone building on the lot is the Official Taxi Services of San Ignacio. Scattered around the lot are numerous vendors selling fresh fruit, nuts, and cold drinks to either departing bus passengers coming or going, needing nourishment for their journey or quenching after it.

We were told that any bus going to Belize City would stop on the highway for the zoo. Climb on, find a seat, make sure your window opens or suffocate until some air comes in through the luckier windows, and wait for the bus to roll. Along the route from San Ignacio point A to Belize City point B, there are relatively few recognizable bus stops. Anyone can wave at the bus to stop at any spot along the route. The bus may stop for you and then stop again twenty feet farther away for someone else if you or they are too stubborn to stand in the same spot. You can ride for a good half hour or more before the young man comes around to collect your fare. He doesn't even ask, but stands by your seat giving you the eye until you offer your destination. Then he will give your fare like an oracle providing a prophecy.

Our ride took approximately an hour before we were signaled that this was the zoo. Zoo is a misnomer in this case as zoos are generally establishments where animals are brought to be caged generally and specifically for human observations and entertainment. However, as you enter this particular zoo, you are provided with its short history. 

A film crew headed by Richard Foster arrived in Belize in 1983 to produce a documentary titled "Selva Verde" (Green Forest). One of the crew was an animal caretaker by the name of Sharon Matola. Some of the animals used in the film were now tamed, so there was a question as to how to provide for them, because they assuredly wouldn't survive being released into the wild. Matola stayed after the rest of the crew left. She cared for the 17 animals (an ocelot, a puma, a jaguar and several exotic birds), creating a makeshift zoo. Using the animals' enclosures as exhibits she was able to generate funding for their care.

Covering twenty-nine acres, the by 2010 the zoo was home to more than 170 individuals of 48 species native to Belize. The zoo only houses native Belizean animals, but more importantly none of them have been taken from the wild. All residents were once someone's pets, donated to the Zoo, injured and brought in for healing and rehabilitation, born at the Zoo, or sent to the Zoo from another Zoological facility. A couple of the cats were tranquilized by Mennonites when they caught them amongst their dairy herd. 

The zoo has maintained all of the natural flora of the area, the only minor destruction was to create walking paths to venture around the exhibits. Since a number of the animals are nocturnal, a night tour can be arranged. However, our trip was still successful in seeing a number of the residents, even if they had sleepy, droopy eyes.  

What we failed to anticipate is the fact that the zoo is set in a jungle environment. Forgetting our insect repellant was a major mistake. Although we didn't feel a thing as it was happening, both of us had legs that looked like a bad case of the mumps by the time we flagged the bus to return. The mosquitoes feasted on us.

On our return, Ron had a mission. He needed to find a man named Betti. Yes, we asked multiple times to assure us that we heard the name correctly. We left Guatemala with over 100 quetzals, but no bank in Belize will exchange them for Belize dollars or US dollars.  There are no currency exchange places in the country. We were told that this man Betti, makes regular runs to Guatemala. We didn't question why. However, he was the only source in the town to make an exchange. Ron must have asked 9 different people if they had seen Betti. His usual corner is close to the 'bus station'. Just about everyone knows Betti, but no one could locate him for us. "He was just here a minute ago" was a common mantra. We would have had better luck finding A Boy Named Sue. We never did find Betti.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Canoe? I Can!


San Ignacio and its sister-town, Santa Elena are separated by the Macal River. They brag that they have the only suspension bridge, the Hawksworth Bridge, only a one-lane, thus one way bridge. It was built in 1949. These two towns are the second largest urban area in the country. These two little towns boast a total population of about 20,000 with a variety of nationalities including: Creole, Mestizo (Spanish-Maya), Lebanese, Chinese, Mennonite, Maya and other cultures. Considering the entire population of Belize is 344,700 it seems to put it in perspective. 

What should jump out from the list of groups above is Mennonite. This religious group has the distinction of being some of the area’s best farmers and dairy people. We heard the community started with one family back in the 50s and others followed shortly thereafter. There is also a strong Amish community here, so seeing a horse and wagon is not an unfamiliar sight for the locals. 
Burns Avenue is "Main Street" where most of the shops, restaurants and banks are located. It runs about five blocks before turning into residential areas. Aside from Burns Avenue, there are only a few short blocks hither and yon where there are isolated hotels, hostels, and some restaurants. 

Needless to say, there is not a great deal to do as I have mentioned before, but Ron booked us on a river tour down the Macal River by canoe. I have an aversion to canoes. They make me nervous, because they are so narrow. I don’t trust them. We were told our guide would do all of the rowing, which was fine by me. I also have an aversion to outdoor exercise. If Mother Nature intended for me to move my arms in circular motions I would have been a bird. 

Sergio picked us up to transport us the few blocks to the river where we met Tony, our guide. Had we known it was so close, we would have walked; it was embarrassing to be transported such a short distance. Once in the canoe, Tony paddled. Picture this: I am 6’1” and Ron is 6’2”. Ron is slender, but solid and I carry some weight. Tony is about 5’1” if we stretched his neck when measuring. He probably weighs in at about 110 lbs. During the tourism season, he does this trip daily. This canoe has three places to sit. In the front is a contoured seat like a metal seat on a rider mowing machine, the second and third are just plain planks of wood about 9” wide. The plan was to be canoed 6 miles up the river stopping along the way to see wildlife, which turned out to be mostly birds, but an occasional iguana sunning itself on a tree.

After the first half hour, hearing Tony breathing heavily behind us, Ron offered to help paddle. We were going upstream. Tony appreciated and accepted the offer. Sorry, but paddling was not in my contract. Having two of them paddle didn’t help. It still took us over 2 hours to get to the stop off area. At one point, the water was so shallow, we had to get out, walk the length of about a ½ block and then climb back into the boat. I immediately slipped on the rocks, flew into the air, and down on my back. Not hurt, but embarrassed and now filthy dirty, we continued on. 

Our goal was to reach a luxury resort, owned by an American woman and her British husband. There on the premises is a historical museum, a butterfly house, and a medicine trail. Two plus hours is more than my butt or back can take of a canoe seat. If I had not been paranoid about falling over into the 2 feet depth of water, I would have stood up. Had it not been so slippery, I would have walked. I was in pain; enjoyment ended at hour 1 minute 39. We thought Sergio has told us everything was included in the tour. When we finally arrived it was a hike uphill to reach the Butterfly House where we found we had to pay extra to get in, but no one was there to sell us admission. Entering, we were surprised, awed, dive bombed, and entertained by gorgeous blue butterflies, seemingly the only species that has not yet laid eggs and died off. Continuing up the hill, we reached the History Museum, but this was manned and admission was 9 Belize dollars or $4.50 each. The museum was no larger than Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, so we turned our noses up and left. By the time we reached the Medicine Wheel, we found there was another fee to self-tour the grounds to view 300 species of plants from which medicines are derived. We passed up this opportunity too. 

By now, I was considering taking a taxi back to the town. I thought we must have reached Guatemala after that river ride, so the cash register in my head was dinging over the cost of a taxi. It turned out to be only ten mile, but Tony offered that returning would be faster going with the tide. Convinced, we returned with him. Ron gave me the contoured seat. It was better, but not for 1 ½ hours. By the time we returned, I was ready to be on land and stay on land. 

For my late afternoon and early evening entertainment, I spoke with locals. Belizeans are amongst the friendliest people I have ever met. It is not uncommon for total strangers to greet you with a smile and will stop to talk if you show an interest. Even the youth are extremely polite. According to the locals that I was able to speak with extensively, the area is a Mecca for ex-pats from a multitude of countries. The problem is that a work permit is $2,000 USD a year and has to be renewed annually. If you start a business and employ locals, there is no requirement. One Swiss man married a Belize woman with the contract that she would be paid $50 USD a month and one hot dog each day, so he could sell hot dogs from a street stand. This marriage is illegal, but no one cares. Locals pointed out ex-pats in mixed clusters of American, Italian, Swiss, and German. Personally, being an ex-pat, I am thankful to have chosen a country where I can flush the toilet paper.
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Monday, January 09, 2012

Listening to Ex-Pats


Having explored the town thoroughly yesterday afternoon, there wasn’t much to do today, but plan our time to prevent going stir-crazy. Finding our way to Flavya’s Café for breakfast, I had the opportunity to observe other ex-pats in their new natural setting. Feeling like a cultural anthropologist or like Jane Goodall, I eavesdropped for as long as possible collecting data before I plunged in. Holding back allowed the populace to feel comfortable with my presence, getting a sense of their territory having been invaded, allowing them to relax again since I didn’t make any sudden moves or noises.

Note, we are all sitting outside because Belize has banned smoking indoors in public places. General observations: One man age guessed to be about 60 years old from conversation heard, but looks like he is around 70 years old. He stands and sits hunched over, skin is sagging and wrinkled, and he is chain smoking for the hour he is observed. He is Canadian and has not returned home for the ten years he has lived here. There was nothing said to intimate that he had family or significant others sharing his life here.

Woman one: She was from Oregon. From what I overheard, it seems that she is a relatively new here, having been here for just over a year. She mentioned to the others that she had returned to the US to bring her granddaughter back to stay with her and kept her for six months. Questions in my mind were 1.) if this child was of school age, how did she stay away for 6 months or 2.) if she were not school age, how could parents allow their child to be gone for 6 months? Fearful of scaring off the herd, I just observed and listened without any interference. She said that when she brought the child back home, all of grandma’s family was surprised that she intended to return to Belize. Estimated age 68 -75 years old based on physical appearance only.

Woman two:  Also a US transplant, but from which state was uncertain. I guesstimated her age to be around 50 years old. She actually acknowledged my presence, so conversation began. She has been here a couple of years and “loves it”. When I said she is obviously too young to be retired, she stated she is not. She repairs vehicle windshields for a living. When a vehicle gets a chip, scratch or crack, she repairs it so it doesn’t need replacing. When I asked if this is what she did in the US, she laughed and said she was a marketing consultant, but had to learn a new vocation when she moved here. She pointed to the man and said “He roasts coffee. We all scramble with multiple jobs to make a living.” When I asked if it was worth it, she said “Of course, this is paradise.” Yet the response was not convincing and certainly San Ignacio is would fall way low on just about anyone’s Paradise Scale. My impression was that this was all of the paradise they could afford, so they were willing to settle for what was available to them, but alternatively they had to support their decision as being a valid one.

That evening, we went to Serendib Restaurant where as it turns out, the new owners are young couple from Washington State. Sam was willing to speak with me about being an ex-pat, but honestly, his responses left me wanting, not unlike the dinner I had afterward while there. Sam has owned this restaurant for 6 months, though the restaurant itself was opened by a Sri Lankan couple in 1993. When I asked Sam why buy a Sri Lankan restaurant, he responded with the curiosity fulfilling response “Why not?” Seeing that I wasn’t dealing with a critical thinker here, I pursued with “But why a Sri Lankan restaurant in San Ignacio, Belize?” This elicited a little meatier chunk of information. Sam: “When I was here on vacation, this was the only restaurant I ate at. I loved the food. The owners were willing to leave their name, all of their recipes, and even all of the staff stayed on from the chef to the waiters.” The part of the comment that raised red flags for me was when he said this was the only place he ate when here on vacation. Is this limited thinking or some fear of decision making? He was still hanging around, so I took another chance. I asked him why he felt he wanted to be an ex-pat? Sam confessed that he was tired of the keeping up with the neighbors’ mentality, a bigger house, a better car and just wanted an easier lifestyle. The simple solution to this is to keep from buying into it. If you don’t want to keep up with the neighbors any longer, don’t do it. No one is strong-arming you to mortgage your life away to climb that status scale. Sam didn’t have anything to say that was convincing that this was a smart move.

Another area that left me dangling was when I asked what he did for culture? Sam asked me "Like what?" Well, I responded with theater for starters to which he responded he did not consider theater culture, but entertainment. For entertainment, he claims he has friends and they get together for socials. Had I had finished, I would have continued with museums, art galleries, movies, concerts, and all of those cultural outlets that enrich one's life. 

Ron asked him how the medical care was here to which Sam sarcastically responded "I don't know. I haven't been sick."

The tourism season runs from December to the end of March. The rest of the time is the rainy season and Sam’s restaurant is right on the flood zone. I questioned how he could survive during the off season, which is the majority of the year. This is where he became visibly uncomfortable and stated “You budget your money. Every business has down times and they budget to get through it.” This is a true statement, but most businesses don’t have 8-9 months of down time where they have to depend on local business in a 3rd world economy to support themselves. From what we have noticed, most of the ex-pat population that we have confirmed are ex-pats by asking around, are not ordering meals when they sit in these restaurants. They order a beer and sit for hours. As many Budapest restaurants know, this does not pay the bills. I am sure they wouldn’t in Washington State either.    

What seems to be a contradictory statement for many ex-pats about a simpler life is that there are an equal number of new SUVs, trucks, and other expensive style cars as most American cities.

A striking and potentially relevant piece of data had I had a larger pool was the fact although I identified us as ex-pats also, not one person asked us where we lived or anything at all regarding our experiences. I volunteered that we lived in Budapest, Hungary, but this still did not elicit any counter inquiry. 

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Fast Internet Connection, PLEASE!!!


Another private shuttle ride transported us from Tikal Guatemala to San Ignacio, Belize. It wasn’t a difficult ride, only 2 ½ hours, which we planned for our hotel check-out time of 11 am. It would have been a bit faster if it had not been for border control. We went through Guatemala Passport Control just by giving our passports to our driver who was able to get them stamped without us being present. Belize was different. We filled out a form, went face to face with the Passport people who stamped our US books without even looking at us. There was another form to fill out, but that was painless. Next was Customs where there is only a “Goods to Declare” line, but no “Nothing to Declare” option. After being asked if I wanted to declare anything, I was waved through. 

Arriving in San Ignacio, Belize had me questioning Ron’s decision. Why here? Well we were booked at the White House, or Casa Blanca, so that should have been the answer to my question, but I still had lingering doubts. Oh, I get it. It sounded so good in the tour guide. But we are here for 5 nights, overkill for sure. 

After signing in, we were shown to our room. It is one floor off of the ground level. There is a large living room area immediately apparent. To the right is a waist high dividing wall with built in cases with glass windows. There is a vast collection of porcelain figures that look like someone’s private collection, but the focus is a combination of women in 18th century dress, old valentine statuettes, and elephants next to Madonna (not the singer). Beyond the wall is another living room set, dining room table with 8 chairs, and a full kitchen. Our room is at the end of hall, far away from any traffic that may disturb our sleep.

The first thing I did after getting settled was trying the Tigo Internet stick bought in Rio Dulce. No signal! When I went to ask reception, they said that it ‘should’ work, but if it doesn’t they do have WiFi and she gave me the sign on info. Later, I found a note on the refrigerator that shows other services all listed in US dollars: WiFi $2.50 a day, Laundry $10.00 a load and A/C $25.00 a day. The WiFi is so slow, I am actually wishing for a 56k modem. It would be faster. Who ever heard of a download speed of 13.4kb/s in this day and age?       

We walked to the new bridge, the old bridge, the river and all over downtown. That took a whole 2 hours, including going into stores. Okay, it is Sunday so not everything is open. Still, the thought of 5 days here is worrisome. 

Across the street, almost directly across from Casa Blanca, is a restaurant called “Let’s Go Eat” which is the translated name. The real name is in Mayan. The crowd was so great that we had to wait for a table; well worth the wait. As we were ordering, the couple who was on our tour at Tikal, the meditater and the Mayan illustrator asked if they could join us. We agreed and it turned out to be a very pleasant experience. He teaches in a junior college in CA on the Mexican border. She is a psychologist. Conversation was delightful causing me to tell Ron, I retract my nasty thoughts from the morning of the tour. 

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Mayan Ruins


It seemed like such a good idea until the alarm went off at 3:30 am. A time, I am generally awake, I was sound asleep this morning. We are scheduled for a 4:15 am sunrise tour of the Mayan Tikal ruins. We will be perched on top of a Mayan Temple as the sun does its own push up over the horizon in the east. Before any of that happens, we have to find our clothes that Ron had the foresight to suggest we put out last night. It is pitch black in our room and outside.

By 4:05, we are at the lobby of the hotel, waiting. The lobby is locked, so we stand outside until 4: 20 when the reception greets us with a flashlight. Our guide arrived shortly after. There are only four of us going this tour.  We start out in the blackness of morning, when the only  woman in our little group says to us, “I do a lot of meditation and I am hoping we can keep quiet most of the time, so I can meditate in peace.” My first reaction was to tell her to skip the tour and go meditate elsewhere, but I refrained by saying we paid for this tour and intend to get all we can from it. It turned out that her husband was the illustrator for a book on Mayan ruins. I immediately forgot his name.

Walking through the forest in the dark was an adventure. Ron had a small flashlight, but that was all there was for the five of us. Our guide Rony has excellent night vision and could lead without light, but the rest of us needed to see the numerous rocks, holes, puddles, and labyrinth of tree roots that covered massive areas of the paths. It was an extreme sport in darkness. He explained what to do in case we ran into a jaguar. Stay close, create a united front, don’t look it in the eyes. Comforting! In his four years as a guide, he has not come face to face with one yet. Rony received the name, because his grandfather was enamored with Ronald Reagan and wanted his grandson to carry on the tradition. His mother had enough sense to compromise and called him Rony with one n.

When we closed in on the temple where we would view the sun rise, I about jumped ship when Rony said there were 191 steps. When we arrived at the base, I knew I would do this, even if it took me longer than the others. It was surprising to see about two dozen others already at the top. It never occurred to me that you could enter the park on your own or that you would want to at that hour without getting lost. 

The other couple left us once we reached the temple. Who would have imagined we would be sitting on ancient Mayan temple steps, waiting for the sun to rise? The jungle started to come to life as the sun appeared over the horizon. The Howler monkeys started their screams, the birds were fluttering too fast to catch on camera, but there was life where thirty minutes earlier, any life forms would have been debatable. The scene was breathtaking and awe inspiring. Our guide estimated there were 7 tribes of Howler monkeys based on the sounds in different parts of the jungle. They howl to warn other males that their territory is spoken for. Howler is a misnomer, because what you hear is a roar not unlike a lion or tiger. One would swear there were swarms of jaguars roaming around.

Rony continued to tour us around the grounds. The tour was supposed to end about 8:30, but he was still talking and leading us at 9:00, 9:30, 10:00 and finally got us back to the hotel by 10:30. We appreciated the extra time, but sensory overload had kicked in about an hour earlier. He was just so pleasant to be around, we could not cut it short and his knowledge was encyclopedic.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the gift center and bought a bag of Yucca cactus chips. When we returned to the room, Ron headed to the swimming pool and I was going to hang out and read. I had only had about fifteen minutes rest when I was joined by two very curious and hungry coatis.  As cute as they are, they were infringing on my rest and relaxation, not to mention my snack. They started to climb into my lap, so this prompted me to share. I tossed a chip and they fetched, returning for more. My standing and walking didn’t have much effect as long as I had the bag in my hand. Eventually, we had to compromise. I dumped my bag on the grass and they left me alone.

Later in the afternoon, we were napping, recouping the missed sleep from 3:45 am until 8 am, but we were awakened by the most horrendous roaring.  Just yards from our bungalow where the jungle starts again, there were Howler monkeys whooping it up. We were able to get some photos of their antics.

Without WiFi, without electricity, no Internet, no e-mail, no reading in bed, the evening was long and fairly uneventful. I did have some movies on the computer, so we watched one with the battery was charged on the computer. I plugged the computer in so that it would start to recharge before we woke up in the morning. The games that have to be played.

Tomorrow, we leave here for San Ignacio, Belize. Again, we had to hire a private driver. There is no public transport from here to there.
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Friday, January 06, 2012

Mayans Didn't Have Electricity Either


In order to leave the Rio Dulce, we have to hire a private driver to get to Tikal. Public transport is not existent without major routes, changes of buses, and hoping for connections. Manuel, who we presume is the manager, was able to make the arrangements for us. It will cost us a hefty 140,000 quetzals or 140 Euros, but the drive is 4 hours one way and the driver will return after dropping us off, most likely by himself.

After taking the 9 am boat shuttle from the hotel to town, our driver was waiting for us. He did not speak English and Ron opted for the front seat, so he had some practice refreshing his Spanish. With my nose in a book, I looked up every few pages to assure myself there was nothing spectacular happening with the scenery as we drove. That was until the fourth look out the window; we came across a small herd of about 7 – 9 Brahma cows strolling down the highway completely unattended by any humans. They looked like they were running away from home or the slaughter house, but it were the later, they were too emaciated to make more than a few hamburgers at most.

We arrived in Tikal, a national park and protected UNESCO World Heritage site. For two nights our residence is the Hotel Tikal Inn, one of three hotels within the park situated in the jungle that surrounds the Mayan ruins located in this part of the country. Again, we have a lovely little bungalow, but there is one problem: electricity. None of the lights or electric outlets in our room functioned. When we brought this to the attention of the front desk, we were informed that there is only electricity from 6-9 pm and 6-9 am. Aside from those times, the entire park is dark or as light as nature allows, but not electrified.

Okay, this creates a problem because my little netbook is old, but still reliable, yet it only holds a charge for 2 hours before needing an AC/DC fix. One or the other, but I have no idea which it is. I figured I would whip out my Tigo Internet stick and spend two hours on the Internet, then recharge the battery when electric juice is turned on. Well that turned into problem number 2. They do not get a Tigo signal here in the park, so the USB stick doesn’t work.

The bright side alternative was being advised that there was free WiFi in the lobby; the password is prominently taped to the counter. For everything there is a catch. Although I am happy that I can download my e-mails, there is a but or two following. The first BUT is that the WiFi only works when the electricity is turned on, which brings us back to those limited hours of availability. But 2 is that the WiFi only works in the lobby of the hotel, not on the grounds and certainly not in the rooms. Bummer! What a conundrum!

Adding to this mix, dinner is only served during these hours also, creating a number of agenda items to be covered in a short period of time. Add battery juice to the computer in the room. Run into the lobby to download e-mail and do whatever Internet things need doing, eat dinner, and then run back to the room to charge the battery one the computer on last time before 9 pm. It is going to be interesting.

Dinner is tasty, but only moderately hot. We wonder if they use electric for the cooking and not gas. There is a summer camp feeling having lights out at 9 pm. No one gets to do any reading in bed unless you brought your own book light or flashlight. But hey, we are going on a 4 am tour to see the Mayan ruins at sunrise, so we need to get to bed early anyway.
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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Happy Birthday to Us!


Today is my birthday. January is a busy month with birthdays of people within my circle of friends, students,and acquaintances as well.

Happy January birthday to

Dr. Alma Flor Ada - my doctoral mentor and adviser

John E. Holmes - a former roommate and friend

Sheila Orlowski - a sister I adopted as my very own back in 1969 and have held on to her ever since.

Ray Ruiz - a blog reader who convince me to buy property in Florida. I still like him regardless.

Cami Billick - the daughter of one of Ron's best friends. We share the same birthday.

Daniel Cseh - a fantastic former student who had his birthday yesterday

W. Hunter Thomas - our new friend in Budapest

Kevin French - my nephew

Jack French - my father who passed away last January days before his 84th birthday

Thomas Nettis - my uncle
 Here are some famous names who also share a January 5th birthday.

05 - Jan - 1978    January Jones (34)
05 - Jan - 1969    Marilyn Manson  (43)
05 - Jan - 1953    Pamela Sue Martin  (59)
05 - Jan - 1946    Diane Keaton  (66)
05 - Jan - 1942    Charlie Rose  (70)
05 - Jan - 1938    Juan Carlos I, King of Spain  (74)
05 - Jan - 1931    Robert Duvall  (81)

I am sure there are others that I may have missed and if so, I am sorry, but I hope your birthday is happy also. 
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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Stumbled Upons


With not much to do here, but relax and read, we thought we would take a walk into town. We stumbled upon directions in our room stating the way to walk if you so chose. There is a path and then a gate where you turn right for the town and left for the Castillo. Either direction should take you thirty minutes.

Finding the path to the kayaks was easy. From there, we stumbled upon the wooden bridge that goes on and on and on while winding in and out. If it where straightened out, it probably would cover about 4 city blocks. I really admire the patience of the people who built it. It is elevated through swampy land with creepy vegetation that looks like a haunted marsh.

When you reach light at the end of the bridge once again, escaping from the canopy of trees and vines reaching this way and that up from the water and other arms reaching into it, you stumble upon a field. On the left side of the field are cows. Brahma type cows, with the long wattles under their necks. They stare at you with suspicion and are really skittish as if they may have seen many things emerge from that darkness where the bridge ends, but they keep their secrets, not sharing a single memory with anyone but each other.

The directions we were to follow were to look for a green gate. Shortly after passing the cows with the secrets, we stumbled upon a green and gold gate, but this did not look right. We were warned that the green gate would probably be locked, but we could squeeze through. This gate was yawning wide saying AHHHHH! We kept walking, but we stumbled upon the path; it consisted on rocks of innumerable sizes, making a stroll difficult, but each step required climbing until the next step. After another ½ a mile, we stumbled upon the really real green gate. It was locked with a chain and a lock. Swinging the gate to and fro did not provide enough room for squeezing anything much larger than a cockroach through. We stood back and assessed the situation before we despaired.

Looking at the situation again from a bit of a distance, we stumbled upon a solution. On the side of the gate post there was an open space where we could squeeze through easily and we did. Our quest was to go to town to buy a Tigo Movil Internet USB stick, so we turned right based on our instructions. Walking on the roadside did not feel too safe, because the road curves and cars don’t pay too much attention to pedestrians. We both independently estimated that it was another mile to actually stumble upon the town. Whoever suggested thirty minutes walking must have been an Olympian, but we made it.

Once in town, we were overwhelmed with the people around, the traffic was horrific both vehicle and pedestrian. With the note in my hand like a child sent to the grocery store by his mother, I went to one shop after another wherever I saw a Tigo sign. In each place, they shook their head, said something in Spanish, which took me too many seconds to comprehend and then they pointed me in another direction. Finally, we stumbled upon the Tigo store, the place where they sell mobile phones as well at the Tigo service needed to operate them. Eureka! This was the place.

For 205 quetzals or 20 Euros, I would get 3 GB of Internet service; however, they we running a special offer and the first fifteen days are free. Now what I was uncertain about is exactly how much bandwidth usage is free?  Once you do use up the GB you pay for, you can return to any Tigo store in Central America or any other place you happen to stumble upon one and add money to your stick. Quite a deal, I thought, since the hotel did not have WiFi and only two computers that I could only use for e-mail, nothing else.

Being potentially connected to the world again, we explored the town, all one street of it. That is not quite true; there are 2 streets, but since the 2nd street is the one we had to walk up to get to the main street, that had been explored already. Along the one street, it was as in many villages, dozens of the same types of stores competing with each other. Three restaurants sit side by side, none of which would pass a health inspection from a long distance glance. There are more hardware stores here than most cities have bars and pubs. How much duct tape does anyone need?

In one section of the street, we stumbled upon five women with food carts set up side by side along the street. Note that sidewalks are non-existent so you are battling other pedestrians while all of you are trying to avoid bicyclists, tuk-tuks, cars, and delivery trucks all at the same time. It is visual juggling at its best. As we are trying to negotiate some walking space past these women who have their food carts partially in the road, each begging us to try their tamales, tortillas, fried chicken, stuffed chili peppers, and other foods they have labored over. As soon as the warning scent of a potential customer reaches their olfactory glands, you turn into prey. Each woman is screaming at you to buy their food suggesting you only look straight ahead until you have bypassed the competitors’. Everyone has the best selection and flavor in their own mind. We get past each of them with our clothes, bodies, and minds intact, but not without minor scarring.

Now that we are out of the battle zone, what now? We have walked the street, both sides. We have done the side alleys and the courtyards. We have stumbled upon 39 hardware stores, 24 stores that are selling flip-flops and used books, 11 stores offering cheap mobile phones, one veterinary supply store and one pharmacy being run out of someone’s spare room, but where they offer to administer injections and intravenous medicines as well as fill prescriptions. The single woman behind the counter had glasses like the bottom of a soda bottle. Viva la cultural differences.

After that long walk and complete investigation of the town, we were ready to stumble upon something different. We found a hotel restaurant down by the waterfront. The papaya smoothie was delicious, but what now? The clouds were darkening and herding together in what had been a luscious blue sky was now looking like a bad bruise of black and blue. The thought of walking 2 miles and potentially getting caught in the rain did not get score high on my fun-o-meter. We tried taking a tuk-tuk to the green gate, but that was a forbidden zone for tuk-tuks for some reason. Luckily, we stumbled upon a taxi that was more than happy to take us and charge us 25 quetzals. We were more than happy to pay 2.50 Euros for a mile ride.

Back to the green gate, we squeezed through the side once again and retraced our way back to the hotel. We made it back to our bungalow when the skies opened and the rains started to pour down.
For the first time, I took my netbook computer to the restaurant and was ready to connect to the Internet with the new Tigo stick. Each time I had used the netbook here, I had only used it in our bungalow. As soon as the computer booted up, what did I stumble upon, but a message “Wireless connections are available. Would you like to connect?” Well sure I would like to save my 3 GB for as long as possible. Gosh darned if there was not an unsecured Internet connection that was available for using. I was able to post the last three days of blog posts and read and respond to e-mails. I trawled the Internet with the feeling that I had been released from a prison about to explore the world without restrictions once again. That lasted until 6 pm, when the entire Internet connection was lost, not only my WiFi friend, but the connection for the hotel’s computers as well.

Tomorrow, I will try out the Tigo Internet stick that I had stumbled upon.     
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