Monday, September 28, 2009

Travel Blog - Parte Cuatro y Cinco y Seis

It's been months since my last update. I just wasn't feeling like sitting and writing about everything. But, that funk is over, yay! I'm going to cover a lot of time in the following, so I believe it's better for me to just let the memories flow and the stories tell themselves. I'll do my best to cover the scenery and descriptions of the feelings.

We pick up way back in Guatemala. Pamela and I left Guatemala City on an all-day bus ride to Flores. A quaint and tiny city sitting on a lake. It rested on a piece of land like a peninsula spurting out into the lake. There was one main road facing the lake with a few restaurants and bars. The rest of the city was about 6 blocks wide by 4 or 5 blocks deep. Remember, this was still during the Latin Easter "Semana Santa" so we were treated to a few passings of the huge floats carried by the people. We checked into a room with A/C -- a huge plus and explored the neighborhood. The next day we took the bus up to Tikal; about a 90 minute journey. During the ride we met this father-son duo who had apparently been traveling for the kids' entire life. The kid had been home-schooled but knew more than 3 languages already at the age of about 10. The exciting part of this ride was that day I had a weak bladder and was peeing every 10 minutes. Try to imagine my discomfort on a 90 minute ride when my bladder is screaming at me. The driver was not going to stop for me even though I said it was an emergencia. The father had emptied his extra large water bottle and offered it up for my relief. It was glorious, yet not one of my best moments. Gotta do what you gotta do sometimes.

Perhaps not the best opening story....

Anyway, we arrive in Tikal and acquire a guide to show us around the park. We learn that the Queen of Spain had been funding the restoration and unearthing of the city for, pretty much ever. I can't even begin to explain to you what Tikal was like. I remember sitting in the middle of the square with two massive monuments on each side, a religious/game/offering area on another and the palace of the royals on another and thinking "Wow. I'm in a place that thousands of years ago lived a civilization which I cannot even fathom what their lives or their world seemed like". The monuments towered over the jungle's treetops and just as quickly disappeared in the thickness. Some of the monuments you could climb and explore inside viewing bedrooms, kitchens, congregation halls and dining areas. Climbing up the monuments and reaching the top created a view of the city that was amazing. Akin to climbing the tallest building in a city and marveling at the peacefulness, beauty and architecture from a birds eye view. Only Tikal was a city built before a time I can barely imagine. Incredible what they did and how they lived.
Upon our exit after a day of sweating so much we lost 15 pounds, howler monkey's started up. If you've never heard a howler monkey, imagine the character from the movie Star Wars - Chewbacca (the wookie). His voice was a weird rumble mixed with a gargling sound. Howler monkeys sound like that, only scarier and about 50 times louder. You can hear their howl more than 2 miles away. We didn't see them, but I was okay with that as they sounded like that to mark their territory. Point taken.

The next day we had decided to take a couple of days and go to Belize. The bus ride was supposed to take about 4 hours. As fate would have it, the day we go is the same day Belize was having their annual Semana Santa bike race. So, we were stuck crawling at about 20mph for the last 3 hours of our 4 hour turned 6.5 hour trip behind the bike race because you weren't allowed to pass. Our trip quickly turned into making funny faces and waving at the same people in other cars for comedy. Finally we get to Belize City and book our ferry to the island. The islands were called the Cayes (pronounced 'keys'). We stayed on the island Caye Caulker. A small island which could be walked end-to-end in about 30 minutes lengthwise and about 5 minutes width-wise. A place where time slowed to a crawl, reggae was the only music which existed and the food was Jamaican/caribbean. My personal opinion about the place was that it was dirty, the people didn't care about the trash or time, and it seemed way too touristy for my tastes. The few things I liked about it were the music jams held out in the street using only drums and the slapping of hands to skin, and the amazing food we found. The bars and restaurants were all on the water so a nice breeze always kept us cool and some of them were really nicely decorated. Not all of the people were annoying and immature, but when you saw some acting as such, it immediately killed all of the good you had seen so far. Being in Belize made me start writing up a business plan for a nonprofit organization that would seek to educate the people on the ideas of green living. Seeing an entire block on an island that small being used as a trash dump was just too depressing and annoying.
We thought about going to see and explore the famous "Big Blue Hole", but upon some further research and talking to people, apparently, it's just a big blue hole and you can't really see anything. The excitement comes from the aerial photos.

Back in Flores after the long ferry and bus rides, we were so hungry that we missed our overnight bus furiously indulging in some excellent pasta. So, one more night in Flores and a super-early rise the next day for the 8 hour ride back to Guate-City. We decided that we were going to go straight to Antigua that same day and if I remember correctly, we arrived in time for a late dinner which we had right in the Centro Parque. The next day we took a bus to Panajachel (pronounced Pana-ha-shell). The bus ride was crazy. Up the mountain, down the mountain, up the mountain, down the mountain on ever-winding roads with edges dropping deep into ravines. We all got a little carsick as the bus driver enjoyed going as fast as that van could around u-turns and suicide turns, racing down hills and crawling up slopes. About 90 minutes later we arrived in Pana. I have a memory of Pana as being the most colorful city on my trip thus far. Reds, yellows, greens, pinks and blues were the building colors and murals on the walls. The entire city was pretty much an artisan shop. Every shop, alleyway and corner was filled with someone peddling trinkets, clothing, hats, and everything else. Our goal was to see Lake Atitlan and explore the city of San Antonio. I messed up and agreed to a private boat ride to the city at nearly triple what it would've costed us on the public boat. However, we could not find the public boat and due to our time limit, just took the private one. We took the public boat back much to the dismay of our private boat driver - I only agreed to paying half at a time :)
San Antonio was neatio. After the first block of peddlers, we explored the food market full of every piece of chicken it has and even some we weren't sure about. The vegetables and fruits were fresh and the licuados (smoothies) were dreamy. The markets aren't like the sanitary, sterile environments I'm used to back home. The smell immediately smacks you in the face like decay or rotten something. The truth is it's probably just the open containers of fish, chicken, and other animal parts for sale. Nevertheless, I can't imagine going there hungry and buying way more than I came there for, like I would in a market at home.
The guy who sold us the licuados was trying to buy my hat much to our amusement. The furry, yellow and black striped hat in my profile picture. He said something about having a date that night and wanting to look good. His licuados were soooo refreshing and awesome, I had two.
Back to Antigua and Pamela's last night. The next morning she left and I moved to a hostel called El Hostal for a few days. A neat little place with live-in Parrots and a nice little courtyard. It was right across the street from my favorite bar in Antigua: Cafe No Se (meaning literally: Cafe I Don't Know). A hole-in-wall type place with dark lighting and friendly people. That place had its own blends of what is known as Mezcal or Mescal Illegal. (sidenote: I just recently saw an article in a Maxim magazine about the stuff being imported into various countries now, so check it out if you find it in your local liquor store. Instructions- Take 2 shots and watch the chest hair grow [even if you're a female]) One night, they ushered everybody through this little porthole and into a secret backroom after closing time. This girl had set up her cello and another girl had an acoustic guitar and they started jamming out some really inspiring music. One of those cool nights where you find a surprise treat in an unlikely spot.

Antigua is known worldwide for its cobblestone streets, immaculate architecture and the beautifully designed restaurants, hotels, bars and shops. One day, I went on a tour with a guy I met at the hostel lead by a "famous" woman who had written books about Antigua covering its history and everything else you may want to know - Elizabeth Bell. She took us on a walking tour of some ruins of churches and other buildings. Other members of the group were asking economical and political questions so it seemed as if she talked more about that aspect of things when describing the places we saw. The best part of the tour for me was the last thing we did. A stop off at Casa Santa Domingo & Santa Clara. This was the second coolest thing I'd seen in Guatemala, after Tikal. It's a boutique hotel built around actual ruins. It's part insanely expensive hotel with immaculate everything, part world-class museum. For instance, there was a fountain in one part which was an actual ruin partly restored and around the fountain was some painted stone flooring. Where the stone was incomplete or completely destroyed, the hotel had finished it with new stone tiling of exactly the same style. They had a cathedral which looked like something you see in movies and the museum showcased burial sites, war-time artifacts and many different pieces of ancient art. You could explore through everything and even underneath it. A playground which I had trouble leaving because of the craziness of how cool that place was.

I left Antigua and went back to Lake Atitlan. I had heard about a hostel called La Iguana Perdida (translation: The Lost Iguana). Another psychotic bus ride to Panajachel and another boat ride (public this time) to Santa Cruz where La Iguana Perdida (hereafter "LI") rested on the side of the lake. Aldous Huxley (author Brave New World) is quoted as saying Lake Atitlan is "the most beautiful lake in the world". It's easy to agree with that. LI was situated about 25 feet above the water level of the lake but literally on the water itself with only a small path between it's property and the boat docks. I arrived in the late evening as sun was setting, so I barely had time before dinner to unpack and missed the view of my surroundings. LI is a family-style hostel which means that dinner time is served as a whole to the guests. We all sit down together and feast on freshly made bread, soup, entree and dessert prepared by the "chicas". The "chicas" were local Guatemala women who worked at the hostel and loved to joke around with the guests. Many times did that funky furry hat of mine go missing only to see one of the chicas wearing it as she changed the sheets.
While at LI, I met and befriended two guys - Jacob (whom I actually met and chatted with on the bus ride from Antigua) and Derek, who was currently working at LI. We played a lot of pool, went kayaking, joked around and enjoyed each other's company during my stay there. I even took a week of Spanish classes which definitely helped a lot.
Some random memories I have of this time were making the dj mix JET which was requested by my friend Joel awhile ago, who as an artist goes by the name JET III. The inspiration and setting for this mix was different than anything I've ever done. The first morning after my arrival, I woke up, cleaned up and started walking down to the main building where coffee and breakfast was served. When I came down the path and into the open chill area I looked up, stopped dead in my footsteps and said out loud "Whoa". I was looking out across the most beautiful lake I've ever seen at two massive volcanoes on the other side with random fluffy white clouds wisping across the sky. I was breath-taken, literally. I made that JET mix for Joel while sitting in a comfy beach-style chair looking out at that scenery. So cool. I really think the first 40 minutes of that mix do what I was feeling justice. The rest of it kind of falls apart because I got carried away in the music and forgot the motivational factors. But, if you can imagine that scenery and setting while listening to it, then I believe you'll hear what I was trying to portray.
Anyhoo, moving on...
Friday nights at LI were "party" nights. I had offered to DJ and was really happy to do so when the night came. (whee!) They brought out the costumes and everybody got dressed up and face painted. My current profile picture was taken right after my painting was finished that night. A fun night of debauchery and good times was had.
A couple of days after that Jacob, Derek and I decided to travel together and we left for El Salvador. But first, we pit-stopped at San Pedro, another city on the lake. This city was much more active and very, very hippy friendly. You could buy space cakes and cookies (imagine what those are), the bars were playing sports and drum & bass music, one night we found a hostel having a rave with dj's playing psytrance (mostly Israeli-made music with a fast tempo and face-melting synthesized rhythms). We found a restaurant on the main drag called Hummus-Ya run by a Greek woman and we ate there twice because it was so good. It was also the first and subsequently last time I've had hummus on my trip. Where is all the freakin' hummus in Central America?

2 crazy days in San Pedro and then we were off.

Next Chapter: El Salvador

The El Salvador-Guatemala border crossing was by far the easiest and weirdest. They never stamped our passports. Just looked at them, gave us a receipt, a sliver of paper with the signs of the swine flu and one of those hospital masks. They were also randomly checking people with a thermometer. In the end, no stamp for El Salvador in my passport. :-(
We had decided upon checking out El Roble Hostal (translation The Ruby Hostel -- the spanish spelling of 'hostel' is with an "a"). El Roble is located in Playa San Diego.
Playa San Diego was off the beaten path with unpaved roads, no restaurants or stores of any kind, and the only place to get groceries were windows of houses where you went up and saw what they had hoping it was what you wanted. Playa San Diego was on the far side of La Libertad which you entered like a deadend (like the letter T) coming from San Salvador (capital of El Salvador and where our bus dropped us off to be picked up by the van to the hostel). Libertad was the city which split up the playa's on either side of it. El Roble was another family-style hostel. We arrived after dark and quickly checked in and showered. The hostel had a swimming pool and a small bar. There was another couple from Australia and a German girl, named Alexandra there already to join us three and another guy who was traveling alone. That was all the people besides the owner and his wife at the hostel that night. We ended up playing drinking games consisting of Giant Jenga and Ring of Fire. Comedy and good times were shared. (See the pics in my El Salvador photo album)
After a couple of nights at El Roble, we next went to the other side of La Libertad to Playa El Tunco. This time we were joined by Alexandra and now our group was four. We were out of luck finding a cheap hostel with four available beds. Heck, we were out of luck to find a single bed in one of the hostels. Luckily, a lady on the street picked us and showed us a brand new hotel. It was still being built, but the rooms and kitchen had been finished. Good enough for us!
My only memories from El Tunco were the black sand beaches, seeing the city which was 2 internet cafes, a restaurant, a bar and a window store, cooking great meals with everyone since there was no place to eat and watching movies at night since there was nothing else to do. Lots of time hanging out with Alexandra while Derek spent the day on the internet and Jacob read.
We left El Tunco after 2 (or 3?) nights and Alexandra took us all to Juayua (pronounced why-you-ah) by chicken bus. My first experience on a chicken bus. Don't know what I mean by 'chicken-bus'?? Take a regular old school bus -- you know, the big cheese. That big yellow thing you rode to school (well, most of you reading this). Inject said school bus with subwoofers and loud car-stereo speakers, put on latin reggae, 80s one-hit wonders, salsa or 90s bubblegum dance music (preferably a blend of all), paint the bus with every color you can think of, apply stickers or airbrush on images of cartoon characters and famous musicians, remove the muffler and any sort of environmental control part, and finally, most importantly, make sure that horn works. Now, that's just the bus. Let me describe what it's like to be on the bus (or in the bus terminal). Men, children and woman selling mangos with spicy green powder and hot sauce, plastic baggies of water or sugar juice, cookies, crackers, candies you've never heard of and all the meanwhile repeating what they have over and over again exactly the same way (mangos. agua. pina. mangos...) Then you have the bus drivers who for some reason are always very quiet, but the money-takers are yelling out to the world the next destination and rounding up people (even trying to convince them) to get on the bus. (I ended up hearing JUAYUA - JUAYUA-JUAYUA-JUAYUA - JUUUUAAAYYYYYUUUUAAAAAAAAA in my dreams that night). This is supposed to sound silly and comical because that's what the experience of my first time on a chicken bus was like.
We ended up having to take 3-4 different buses that day to finally get to our destination of Juayua. Juayua was a very cute little town. The streets were paved and every corner of every road and some in between had another empanada restaurant or cart. Again, we arrived after dark and found our hostel. Another cute little place with a nice courtyard respectable dorms. After getting a bit settled in, we all ventured out for some food. Well, being in El Salvador, the birthplace and living home of the famous empanada, there was no other option. ....I mean, seriously, there was not a single other option. Apparently, everything except 2 or 3 empanada places closes around 8pm. Not only that, but there is not one single bar in the whole city. Definitely a first on my list. Alexandra and I finally found a place that was willing to sell us a $2 bottle of wine. So, in fitting with our el cheapo vino, we promptly sat on the curb and drank from the bottle.
The next day we heard about a path you could take to these waterfalls. We walked out of the paved streets onto the dirt road, then through the gate and onto a 2 foot wide path alongside the mountain. One side was the mountain, one side was a very painful death. Beautiful, of course though. The waterfalls were cool. These few kids showed us how to climb up and jump off of them which was neat. I eventually gathered up my courage and followed one of the kids up and then watched him do a perfect flip into the water. Showoff. I get up there am literally shaking like a dry leaf. It takes all my might and will to throw myself off that ledge into the pool below. Woohoo, I did it! Only, instead of doing it correctly. I had thrown myself by Will alone and my body had reluctantly followed causing a landing in the water which took all the breath from my lungs and created a small collapsing of said organs. Lesson learned that day: don't do that again.
I can't remember if it was the same day or the next. But my other memory of Juayua was that one day we went to the local market where they were selling veggies, fruits, fried frogs (which I tried for the first time -- oily, tastes like chicken), amongst other wares like clothes and electronics. I ended up making a wonderful stew out of those ingredients along with some mystery meat we found. Turned out very well in the end and we had a family-style dinner at a non-family-style hostel.
Alexandra and I were ready to move on to another city in El Salvador, but Jacob and Derek decided to stay. So the two of us traveled to Suchitoto. I loved Suchitoto. We found an excellent hotel which sat way up where the city was overlooking a valley with a river splitting it. (Pictures of the view in the El Salvador album also) Suchitoto was a sleepy, very relaxing little town. Alex and I stayed a couple of days to relax and get some things done. I recorded some music while she took care of some Visa issues. More empanadas, home-cooking and lots of chilling in this city.
We then traveled back to San Salvador where we stayed at what I thought was the worst hostel ever. It is definitely my least favorite so far. I can't remember the name of it and don't even wish to waste my time searching for it online. Just remember to never go there, OK? We were put in this room with no windows or ventilation of any kind. Thank goodness we were only there for one night because I ended up getting sick in that room. The bathrooms didn't lock and I was walked in on 3 times because of that brilliance. I was more than happy to leave the next day, get on a bus and get into Honduras. Alexandra and I split up here as I was going into Honduras and she had other plans in Guatemala. Our schedules allowed for us to meet up again in La Ceiba, Honduras for their version of Carnivale.

Next Chapter: Honduras

I arrived in La Ceiba, Honduras the next day feeling like total crap. All I wanted was to find a room with a bathroom so I could get myself better. The only thing available to me was a private room which had a ceiling fan. That fan became the bane of my existence very quickly. It was not the type of ceiling fan that is normally called a ceiling fan, but a regular house fan that you'd setup in a corner. But, because it's meant for the ceiling it doesn't pan side-to-side, it rotates as if it were on a ball around and round. Moreover, La Ceiba was having its hottest part of the year during those 2 days I spent trying to get well in that room. When the fan moved away from directly on me, it was about 120 degrees in there. I was feeling so bad and needed to be close to a bathroom that I couldn't really go out for too long, either. Nonetheless, I ended up feeling better after the second night and moved to a new place to stay. The Jungle River Hostel was the highlight of my stay in Honduras and my second favorite hostel so far on my trip. The hostel was about an hour away from La Ceiba and up in the jungles of Honduras. The road turned to rocks and lake-size potholes very soon after leaving the main city and we trekked slowly up through the jungle to the hostel. The hostel sat directly on a river, Rio Cangrejal (the 'J' in spanish words is pronounced as if you were exhaling or saying 'hey'. However, if you say the letter in spanish, it's pronounced 'holta'. You probably learned something new right there, yay!). The main dining area and bar overlooked a shallow pool carved out of the rock and the rushing water of the river. There were constantly people in and out of the hostel because its sister (or brother) hostel was back in La Ceiba -- called The Banana Republic Guesthouse. Through the BRG, you could arrange rafting trips or Canopy/zipline tours and most people did that only coming up to JRL for the day. I became pretty good friends with the locals working there since I ended up staying something around 10 days. The owner was also a very cool guy, albeit a bit of an alcoholic and creepy dude to the ladies. One thing that was interesting about Honduras was that they absolutely loved minimal techno there. They would play it late night at the bar and then let me play or dj some music for a bit too. It was very cool to listen to that type of music in that kind of environment. Dark, minimal techno in the Honduran jungles!
My memories of being there include walking up to this other hostel one day because it was the only place which had internet. While doing so, we encountered a mass awakening of termites. Apparently, twice a year in the Honduran jungle, termites wake up or come out of the cocoon or something and they have wings. There were trillions of these things fluttering around. It was like driving in a snowstorm where you're moving and these things were coming straight at you. We had to duck and swerve out of the way of them. The frogs and geckos were having their own little feasts that night though... that was cool to watch. Frogs' tongues are lightning quick!
After a few days there, Alexandra arrived and we took one of the rafting trips down the Cangrejal. I think the rapids were 3 and 4 levels. We didn't just raft though. Hiked a bit over the rocky terrain, slid down rocks into the river, jumped off the rocks, went down rapids without the boat and then we finally got in the boat and rafted a bit. A good day, all in all.
We only stayed at JRL for a night because Carnivale was having its height of celebrations the next two nights back down in the city, La Ceiba. So, we left and found a cheap little hotel to stay in near where the parades would be happening. Carnivale was good and bad for us. The daytime was fantastic. Parades with beautiful outfits, people throwing beads, street vendors selling crazy foods and drinks, happy children and lots of merriment. The nighttime was the bad. People were drunk and disorderly, the crowds multiplied by 10 causing people-jams with pushing, fighting and overall stupidity. A few of the stages played decent live music, but others were packed with teenage girls-gone-wild dancing booty-style. I thought it a bit odd that the only dancing I saw (and what I believe anybody actually knew) was how to shake their bodies like being have waves of electric current and grinding up on one another. Classy, really. Ultimately, Carnivale was a disappointment for me. The next day, Alexandra and I split up again while she went back up North and I moved into the capital of Honduras: Tegulcigalpa.
I spent a couple of days in Tegulcigalpa exploring some of the museums and buildings I found in the Lonely Planet guide. I stayed for two nights and left for Nicaragua. When I got to the bus station, the news was covering a breaking story about an earthquake which had occurred in Honduras just a little bit off the coast of the Bay Islands. It registered something like a 6 or 7 on the Richter scale, but my room showed no signs and I felt nothing. The traveling continued...

Coming up in the next edition of my travel blog: Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama.