Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Escuela, Pueblo, y Musica

Hola Chicos!
Just a fast post today--I went to Spanish classes from 8am-1pm this morning and discovered that the school really is pretty nifty. Since i was there on the regular school schedual today (instead of starting at 2 like yesterday) i got to see the school in full swing. The courtyard was filled with Spanish students and teachers, all giving one-on-one lessons and when my mind drifted, i could still hear spanish learning all around me...it was really a great way to stay on task. During the break, instead of standing around waiting for my teacher to finish her cigarette, the entire group gathered outside to chat (in Spanish), and the administrators brought around hot tea, fresh mangos, cookies and sweat breads for us. Then when least expected it, the teachers all broke out painted eggs filled with confetti and cracked them over our heads! Of course, we then got ours by storming the officina and getting some eggs for ourselves which we proceeded to chuck at the teachers for the remainder of the recess! A fun day...

After classes, i went to the market and spent about 3 dollars on a truck load of fresh veggies and made myself the first propper meal that i have had in days at the hostel. I had a short nap, and then made my way back to the school to meet a few of the teachers for the afternoon activity (included!) which was a tour of a nearby pueblo where a lot of the region´s produce comes from. There we toured a church, saw a pagan shrine for San Simon (the patron saint of vices to whom locals offer burnt sacrifices of rum, money, candy, ciggs, and drugs, and checked out a local artisian collective. I also bought a strange fruit a the market called a cuchina (spelling?) which was like a huuge string bean filled with cocao like meaty-seed things. It was muy rico (tasted a pit like pear or banana). The whole trip was filled with tons of relaxed spanish conversation (a good thing, because i opted out of a host family--i figured that 5 hours was all my sanity could handle) which was a nice supplement to the intensive lessons in the morning.

After that, i came back to the hostel, ate a bit, hung out with some of the other hostelers, and then went to a jazz concert that was part of a national jazz festival featuring artists from all over the world (free!). Interestingly enough, the band tonight was from Italy, and im sure that i was one of the few in the audience who could understand their banter. The music was great, but what really shined (for me, at least) was their awesome stage presence. They were really energetic and a bit silly, occasionally leaving the stage in the middle of a number leaving one of the four on stage for an inpromptu solo. They would then come back in strange outfits or hats and taunt eachother--a nice break from all the guatemala-ness around me. The theater was also a strange anomoly for Guatemala, it seemed to be modeled after some of the nicer theaters that i have seen in Europe, and was really inpressive.

After that i came home, and that was my day.

And they all lived happily after,

Monday, March 7, 2011

Volcan Tajumulco and first day of spanish class

Hey folks,
Where did i leave off, lets see...right, i was telling you about the trek that i was about to embark upon to the higest peak in Central America, heres the tale:
I woke up at 4 in the manana along with around 5 other brave souls in the dorm near the treckers office, we went downstairs and got our gear together, i needed to pack the following things: Thermal sleeping mat for the below zero temperature, sleeping bag, a poofy winter jacket, two teck-thermal shirts, a sweatshirt, my fleece, gloves, wool socks, a hat, 5 liters of water (for american readers, thats two and a half soda bottles), plate, coffee cup, spoon, a kilo of peanut butter, a kilo of humus, and about 5 kilos of dry pasta. Obviously a lot of that stuff was communal, we had to share the load--and boy did i get a good share.

We left the office around 445am when the rest of the group arrived and finished packing (there were 15 of us, 12 clients and 3 guides from America, Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Korea, Israel, the Netherlands and more i cant remember). We then hopped in the back of a pickup truck and bounced our way accross Xela to the Xela bus terminal which for some reason is in a neighboring town called Minerva. We waited for the first chicken bus to San Marcos, and threw our bags on top of the bus for the two hour ride there (i slept the whole ride!). In San Marcos we went to a comodore and ate a pretty decent breakfast (dont worry folks, i wont regale you with the contents of every meal, snack, and sniff like the Honduras post!) with way oversweetened coffee-like hot water. We finished and hopped a second chicken bus which took us up to the base of the volcano.

Let me take just a minute here to tell you about this volcano. When i was told it was the higest peak in central america, i too scoffed a bit. I have climbed quite a few of the montains and volcanoes here in Centro America and they have never been much of a challenge for me. It was only when i saw the sign at the entrance to the park that i realized how high we were going to trek. The volcano peak is 4, 220 meters, thats higher than nearly all the highest peaks in the Alps. Plus, i have never climbed anything with a pack that heavy before, I have always done day trips and it has always been hot as hades, but this time i was weighed down and bundled up in layer upon layer of poofy clothes. This was not to be an easy trek.

About halfway up the volcano, a group of about half a dozen machete weilding men confronted us and demanded that we pay them money to continue up the volcano. They showed us bogus identification what was obviously fake and told us that the official at the base of the trail was an impersonater who esploits trourists, and that they were the real officials (creative, right?). The guides were not sure what to do (because they knew that was obviousy a shake down but they had never encountered this before--the guides at the place i went through are not trained guards or mountaineers; the company is a not-for-profit and all the proceeds get donated to a school and shelter for street children). We discussed our options as a group and when the discussion turned to the fact that they had machetes, i pointed out the fact that we had machetes as well, and that if we just kept walking they surely wouldnt follow. The group wasnt totally convienced, but the half that agreed on this point (including two of the guides) all picked up their bags and we kept going, and once the rest saw that the shake-down-ers in fact werent going to follow us, they too joined and we never heard from those guys again. All bark, no bite.

I took us about 6 hours to climb the volcano (2 hrs faster than most groups) and the last 20 minutes felt like an eternity. I was dead tired, dehydrated from overrationing my water, frozen solid, and suffocating in the low oxygen. None-the-less, i made it to the top and at the front of the pack.

After we arrived at the base camp (which was a clearing at the top of the tree line where the gound was still insulated and coushined by the pine needles) we immidiately saw to building fire and shelter. We pulled the food and tents out of the bags and the girls built the tents while the guys collected firewod, and built the pit and cook-station. There was a mist like you wouldnt believe on the mountain side, and the group decided it was too cold and the visibility was too low to keep goint to the summit that night. Instead we built a roaring bonfire out off all the twigs and pine needles we could find (because the area was hugely deforrested and any legitimate firewood had already been burned away (monst of the forrests in the region had been torched during the Guatemalan civil war to eliminate potential geurilla hide-outs) and chilled out playing corny camping games and stuff. Dinner was the food we brought up (pasta and PBnJ and stuff) along with some much needed coffee and tea.

It was so cold that night, and luckily there were only two tents for all of us, which meant a rather cozy, yet warm night in the tent. At some point in the night we heard people milling about and making noise outside the tent and i was convinced for a moment that it was machete wielding geurillas come back to sley up for not paying the exploitation fee to climb the mountain. Alas, it was just some dude trying to find his own campsite and no harm done.

We woke up at 4am again and packed our sleeping bags, mats, and water and climbed the remaining 500 meters or so to the summit of the volcano where we took a minute to marvel at the fact that we were way above the cloudline ( it looked like we could just walk out onto the surface of the clouds), and the fact that there were absolutely no clouds above us to block out the infinite sky...then we rolled out our mats and bags and did our best to go back to sleep (even though it was deathly cold up there.

I woke up in time for one of the most beautiful and unique sunrises i have ever experienced. It only lasted a few seconds because as soon as the sun rose over the cloudline, it vaporized the nice fluffy clouds and a fast rush of mist washed over us as the clouds rose, diffusing the sun to the point where we could look directly at it, and then to the point where we couldnt see the sun at all or ever our hands in front of our faces. We waited for the mist to clear and then went back down to base camp where we had hot mosh and coffee, packed up the camp and headed back down. A far easker trek (although death on my bad knees) that took just about 4 hours (no more water and food to carry!).

At the bottom we got lunch at a comodore and then made our way back to Xela via chicken buses. It was a good weekend, ended with a few of us getting dinner at a street carnival that had just opened sunday night.

Im getting kicked off the computer now so i need to be brief, this morning i slept late and moved into a nicer hostle, then napped a bit, found a spanish school, signed up, napped a bit more, took 5 hours of spanish lessons and sat down to write this blog. Im still dead tired so to sleep is where im about to go now.

Keep reading, and please comment!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Guate again

Ok folks, just a super quick post to let you know what is up.
After a fantastic weekend at home (Broadway, Hackensack, New Ro, NYC, Montauk) i flew back down to Guatemala so that i can take a few weeks of spanish lessons in the immersion environment. I got to guatemala city and went straight to my friends house in zona 14, where i stayed two nights enjoying delicious food and great company. This morning i took off for Quetzaltenango (commonly referred to as Xela...pronounced ¨Shaylah¨) and when i got here i signed up for an overnight trek to the highest volcano peak in central america (i cant remember or pronounce the name). We leave tomorrow morning at 445am so i got a dorm bed at the hostle next door and will be leaving first thing in the morning. There will be an 8 hour trek up the mountain tomorrow, followed by dinner and camping at base camp and a sunset hike to the peak, then another hike to the peak for sunrise. we should get back to xela by late afternoon on sunday. ill check my email then, or monday.
I start spanish school on monday.
Sorry for the berevity and the typos, this keyboard stinks.
keep in touch and please comment or email,

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Honduras to Tikal -->A quick rundown of the past 20 days

Jan 30: Final day at the wine shop, said goodbyes, my friend Chris flew in from Chicago to join me on this little backpacking adventure, we ate dinner with mutual friends in Antigua.

Jan 31: Ate breakfast at Dona Luisa's-- a restaurant in Antigua where they make amazing Banana bread (among other things)--I got desayuno typico and a cake with coffee, we booked our tickets to Copan Ruinas, Honduras,dropped off laundry, ran around catching up with old friends (saying hello and goodbye), picked up the laundry, ate pizza at Quesos y Vinos, met a friend for some tea at Cafe Sky, went over to the apt of a couple we are friends with for a glass of wine and catchup.

Feb 1: Woke up at 3am to catch the 4am bus (6hrs) to Copan Ruinas, ate Yogurt that we bought at Dona Luisa's the previous day, drank some tea, got on the bus, slept most of the 6hr trip to the Honduran Border, went through customs, paid exit and entry taxes, hopped on a collectivo from CR to La Entrada(2 hrs), arrived in La Entrada and hopped a bus to San Pedro Sula (2nd biggest city in Hondu)(3 hrs), made a quick and lucky connection to Lago Yajoa via the El Mochito bus (3hrs), got off the bus 1/4 mile from the D&D (dale and dogs) Brewery Inn (the only microbrewery in Hondu--the brewmaster is an American ex-pat from Portland, Not Maine), walked a quarter mile in the dark asking families through their kitchen windows if they knew where the D&D was, got directions, arrived at D&D and checked in to find a basic room with two beds and a full bath (just a curtain separating the toilet from the room!), we were welcomed with a pitcher of homebrewed amber ale--a bit flat but deliciously tasty, spoke to the brewmaster and heard his story, met his dogs, talked to a girl who works at a school in the mountains for the mining company who told me of the fantastic salary she makes and the fact that they have openings next year and are looking for a young male teacher with all my exact qualifications, got her email to send my resume, ate dinner (hamburger), and went to sleep.

Feb 2: woke up early, ate breakfast (banana pancakes with seriously decent fake maple syrup), got a ride to the Pulpunzak Falls just north of Pina Blanca, paid L50 to enter the park, realized that we didn't bring enough cash to hire a guide (so we couldn't get into the caves behind the falls), hiked down to the base of the falls (amazing--see photos on picasa), hiked back up, swam on top of the falls, tried to swim up river-current was two strong, collected some neat shells, dried in the sun, hiked around the park, went back to the D&D, packed water and granola bars, hiked to another national park nearby and explored the jungle, walked a boardwalk through the jungle/marshland/estuary, saw lots of awesome birds I don't know the names of, ate granola bars in the jungle, saw some ancient ruins (mounds), climbed an overlook tower, crossed a rope-bridge (seriously neat!), hiked through the swamp to the Lago Yajoa, got muddy, went back to the D&D where a fresh pitcher of porter was waiting for us (also delicious but also a bit flat), ate dinner (green salad with chicken), talked to an older guy from rural Georgia who told us all about his travels and that he'd rented a rowboat everyday and gone out onto the lake to fish, he lent us some tackle and line and we planned on doing that the following day (we'd have to extend our stay a day), retired, watched Idiocracy.

Feb 3: woke up early (less early than Feb 2), ate breakfast (veggie omelette, toast, greasy potatoes, too much ketchup, hot sauce, tea), hiked through coffee, banana, and flower plantations to a cloud forest to see a blue hole guided by one of the D&D dogs who led us for 4 hours through the jungle and disappeared at one point to (I assume) fight off a jaguar in our name, on the hike back we walked through a sugar cane field and were met by the farmer who took us in his pickup to a natural spring where all the fresh water for Pina Blanca come from (is "born"). He gave us fresh cane to chew on (chew the wood, suck the sugar juice, spit out the gristle, mmmm) which was perfect because we ran out of water and were hungry. We went back to the D&D to get water, eat granola, swim in the pool, and sample the apricot lager. After we were rehydrated and refreshed we walked down the road a bit and rented a rowboat for L50 and rowed out into the middle of the lake where we fished (got pretty sunburned, caught lots of water and lake-grass) until the sun went down, got a bit lost, but followed some fishermen back into the canal where we had rented the boats, docked just at sundown (but were asked to ferry several locals across the canal who offered to pay us ~10 to 20L (of course we refused), we walked back to the D&D and on the way back stopped at a comedor for beleadas (a type of Hunduran quesadilla with more beans than cheese and more tortilla than beans--but still, delicious-and only L12). We got back to the D&D to a pitcher of pale-ale waiting for us (definitely the tastiest of the bunch with very little bite), we also had some of the house-made root-beer that night and met a few girls from the states also traveling through Hondu.

Feb 4: Woke up, ate the same greasy delicious breakfast, packed out bags and left for the center of the country, planned on heading towards Tegucigulpa (the capitol) and stopping at an underground cave system on the way, we got a ride from a local heading to Comoyagua (the historical capitol of the country--think Hunduran Antigua) who drove right past the caves before we noticed. He was a real nice guy who apparently lived in San Pedro Sula (the 2nd biggest city in the country) and drives to Comoyagua every day for work (approx. a 6 hr drive). He dropped us off in the center of town and we proceeded to look for lunch and a place to stay (found lunch first). we checked into the cheapest hotel we could find (L150) and went out to explore the town. We had planned on staying here a few days to explore the nature reserves and national parks that surrounded the area, but found the town to not have as good a vibe as we would have liked and decided to head out the next afternoon (the national parks were far away in the hills with no public transportation and would have taken a lot of time to get to without a car). So we explored the town which was beautiful in that same kind of colonial way, and wend shopping for provisions because they had a supermarket with all kinds of random american brands. Most importantly, we bought water and sunscreen. We got a bean-fondu thing for dinner (i cant remember the name fort he life of me but its apparently a Honduran favorite) served with delicious fresh fried tortilla chips, and enjoyed a drink on the main square in the hot February night.

Feb 5: Woke up and packed our bags, returned the room key and headed to the bus terminal to catch a bus for the capitol (we planned on staying a night there), on the way, we grabbed breakfast--typico (eggs, beans, tortillas, plantains), and some more water at the supermarket (Hunduras is HOT) and jumped on board the bus to Tegus (there was some attraction we had planned to see on the way, a forest hike to some small ruins, but we decided to skip it en route). During the 4 hr journey, some clowns paid the driver a few limps to make and announcement and proceeded to talk for (it seemed) 45 mins about why we should give them money, but they were talking strange and i could barely understand their spiel, so i eventually tuned them out and went to sleep. We arrived in Tegus to find it just as awful as Guatemala city (at least on first appearances) so we hopped a bus north towards the Caribbean coast (not before eating Chinese food at the restaurant across the street from the bus terminal and in between two gas stations. For L100, they brought us a plate of Chop Suey ('chapsooi') like I've never seen before, the serving must have weighed eight pounds, it was a mountain of veggies--and delicious too. We finished eating and wandered for an hr before we could find the bus to the north (we would have to stop in a little town on the way for the night, because their was no direct line to La Cieba (the 'capitol city' of the caribbean region). We stood the entire trip to Linones (the small town) and got there after dark (4hr ride) to find that not only was this a small town, but it was barely a road stop. There were no hotels and only one restaurant (a comodor). It was dark and we needed a place to sleep, so we asked the proprietor of the comodor if she had any suggestions for us. She immediately scolded us for being out so late and told us to follow her so that we wouldn't get attacked by banditos. She took us door to door, trying to fine a place for us to sleep, and eventually, one of the town mothers opened here door to us and gave us a room for the night. She gave us clean sheets and the room was safe and secure--I just want to take a moment to comment on the kindness of strangers and how once again, a total stranger came through for me (a total stranger to her) in my time of need. An interesting lesson of the road. The only thing going on near by was a very loud church service, so we stayed in and watched "the Motorcycle Diaries" which is the story of Che Guvera (based on his travel journals) and how he began to develop his socialist ideas as he traveled South America on a motorcycle with his friend, and saw the poverty he was shielded from in his privileged Buenos Aires upbringing. A great film, and a neat look into Che before he got militant. After the film, we did out best to kill all the cockroaches and go to sleep.

Feb 6: Woke up the sounds of more loud church people, packed up and gave the mama of the house L100 before eating breakfast (typico) at the comodor and catching the first bus from Limones to Saba (4 hrs) where we had transfer to La Cieba (2 hrs). I had a few interestign conversationg with people sitting next to me on the bus, one of which had never met an American before (we were that deep into the country and that far off the gringo trail). The terrain was totally different from Guatemala, more rolling mountain ridges than steep volcanic rises, some points in the trip even reminded me of the dolomites. We switched in Saba with enough time to eat some fresh doughnuts that tasted like they were made with pretzel dough, and to worry about making it to La Cieba before dark. The bus came, however, and we hopped on for another 2-3 hrs of standing room only to La Cieba where we caught a cab (L20) because it was after dark and went straight to the Banana Republic hostel. We checked in and showered the bus travel off, then head out to the gringoest of the gringo bars in town (the Expatriates Bar and Grill) to watch the superbowl--they even had bud and chicken wings! After spending way to much on a night pretending we were back in the states, (burgers, fries, wings...) we crashed at the hostle.

Feb 7: Woke up late, booked a tour to the Jungle Lodge hostel and adventure center outside of town in the middle of the jungle alongside (and overlooking) a powerful whitewater river. And spent the rest of the day (jeep left at 1pm) exploring La Cieba. We dropped off some laundry and walked along the beach until we found an amazing little Garifuna restaurant overlooking the sea where I got fried redfish, beans and rice, veggies, and deep fried plantains all covered in hotsauce, and pigged out. Meanwhile, my socks and sneakers were drying on the roof of the restaurant because to get to this restaurant we had to wade through an inlet of the sea (or just walk around on the road) that i thought i could jump over but failed miserably at doing so! We hung out there for a while while my sneaks dried and while we waited for the laundry, then headed back to pick that up and repack our bags. We hopped into the jeep and headed for the jungle lodge just after 1pm and arrived in time to take a zip-line canopy tour of the jungle. Halfway through the tour we unclipped and hiked up to a waterfall and then through a plantation that grew bananas, cane, coffee, cilantro, etc, as well as a small fishery. We ended the tour with a long line across the river canyon and then chilled out in the lodge pool until sundown. The pool was a natural dip in the rock formation upon which the lodge was built (overlooking the river canyon) that they had simply introduced and flowing water source to to prevent stagnation, the water cascaded over the cliff turning the pool into a waterfall too. It was beautiful. We spent the remainder of the evening there, and jumping off the cliff (maybe 50 ft) into the water with the other at the hostel (just one girl and the lodge guide/bartender who didn't really have any work to do because the lodge was empty but for us). We all ate dinner at the bar, drank tea afterwards and watched '28 days later' on the bar's music computer.

Feb 8: Woke up, had breakfast with the folks at the hostel (corn flakes), and resolved to take a hike up to the huge waterfall at the top of the mountain overlooking the rover canyon. The tour guide/bar tender that we were hanging out with the night before was still new, and had only taken this hike once but was expected to lead paid group tours in the the coming days, so as a means for practice, he took the three of us on this hike for free, pointing out interesting stuff along the way (mostly as a joke). We hiked a few hours switching back up a windy trail through the jungle of the mountain, stopping here and there to swim in a mountain pool or check out a view of the valley below (sometimes, we could even see as far out as the Caribbean sea!). when we finally got to the top of the trail, we found the mammoth waterfall, cascading over a cliff 50m above our heads, we ducked under the flow for a while, enjoying the immense pressure of the falling water and mist. We then hiked back down the mountain along the river, scrambling down slippery rock and stopping all over to swim in the natural whirl pools, falls, and streams. It was a great trek. We got back to the lodge just in time to pack and catch the jeep back to La Ceiba, where we immediately hopped into a cab (L50 each!) to the seaport where we bought tickets (L525!!) on the catamaran shuttle to the Caribbean island of Roatan. On the boat, we met a fantastic young Danish couple who we ended up sharing a cabin with (because the island was mad expensive and splitting a double 4 ways just made sense). The four of us got to the cabin and walked down the beach until we found a restaurant advertising all-you-can-eat wings for $1, which of course i was all over cause I'm a wing freak. Unfortunately the owners were from Baluxi (as i correctly guessed from her accent -->total luck) and had no idea how to make a proper chicken wing--plus, they had the nerve to charge L50 a drink and they 'ran out' of chicken upon our second order--the shysters! We left and picked up some discounted refreshments from the 'mini-super' and went back to the cabin where we played several Danish dice games and went to sleep.

Feb 9: Woke up, got breakfast at a carib place with tables in the sand under coconut and palm trees on the beach (eggs and peppers hot sauce with wrapped in flour tortillas, hot tea) and hiked down the shore west of West End (the beach town in which we were staying) towards West Bay where a really nice beach is supposed to be, but found that we were too tired from our intense jungle mountain hike the day before and found that we didn't want to walk the whole way there. Pues, we resolved to find a good place to swim en route and ended up finding [read: discovering and claiming in the name of Spain under our joint governorship] a platform built up in the water a few meters from the shore. The shore line was really thin and people occasionally walked by and would have kicked sand on us had we laid out in the sand--so this dock we found was perfect. We laid in the hot sun for a while (hot) and i went swimming. I was getting thirsty, so I went to one of the abandoned resorts and found a man selling cervesas and water out of the back of his truck in one of the old cabana bars and picked up some refreshments and brought them back to the dock. After the water a man walked by us along the shore selling empanadas de carne and we snacked on those before I fell asleep for a while. Not too long after that, we heard some familiar voices and i looked up to see our Danish friends walking by with snorkels and flippers that they had purchased second hand that morning. I borrowed their gear and swam out maybe 500m (the water was so shallow, clear, and calm it was not hard at all) out to sea and saw a bit of the coral reef, and plenty of brightly colored fish, lobsters, and conch. While i was out to sea, the three of them had procured some more refreshments, and i got back just in time to help them enjoy. We left the dock around sunset and all ate dinner together at the cabin. I made a spicy jalapeno tuna and redbean spaghetti dish with big chunks of fresh eggplant and onion that i bought off the back of a veggie truck. We stayed up and chatted by candlelight well into the evening.

Feb 10: Woke up and had breakfast all together, i had banana pancakes with hot tea and tons of water to hydrate and prevent sunburn again. We borrowed a small backpack from the daughter of the cabin owner and filled it with water and towels anticipating renting bikes and exploring the island. The danish had planned on hiring a boat to go snorkeling a few km out along the reef. When we got to the bike rental place, we found that he didn't have any available, so we ran to find the Danish couple to jump on their snorkeling adventure with them. We found them and rented the gear, and took a 2 hr tour of the reef. In the reef we saw eels, brightly colored fish, tons of different types of coral, barracuda, colorful lobsters which were huge and scary looking, and electric jellyfish that fluoresced all kinds of colors if you swam near them. We also saw several of the rare human variety of fish, SCUBA diving below--you may not know this, but humans are the most dangerous game of all. We swam back to the launcha and boated back into the dock, where we split up for dinner (the Danish were too tired to eat and we were too hungry to sleep). A few hours later we met up for drinks and brought burritos and refreshments back to the cabin to enjoy while playing dice by candlelight again. Chris and I had planned on leaving the island the following morning, but we were having too much fun and resolved to stay one more day.

Feb 11: We woke up and i immediately went to the bike rental place to reserve bikes for us that day. In the meantime, the three of them began breakfast, and when i returned it was hot and waiting for me on the table (I love that). We decided to cook dinner again that night (because its much cheaper than restaurants which are crazy expensive on that island), and Chris and I took off on bikes to explore the rest of the island. Until then, we were mostly trapped in West End--beautiful, but touristy. We packed water (not nearly enough) and headed out for the day, our coal was to ride half the length of the island on the south coast, then cut across it over the mountains and head back along the north coast (the guy at the bike shop told us that only ~25 others had managed to do it and they needed to get picked up before they got back--its really steep and hilly). The first 10 miles passed like a breeze, so when we got to the point of no return (where we could head back or decide to keep going--there are very few paved roads on the island, and maybe 3 that are bike-able) we kept going, only to regret it a few miles later when the roads got really steep and tough. But i refused to turn back, because i wanted to see the north coast. We stopped for liquados (i had carrot/orange/banana) and then kept rolling up the hill until we got to a left turn which i thought was the road directly across the island (the mountain sure seemed steep enough!). It turns out that the road was taking us diagonally across the island stretching out the miserable mountain road far longer than that it should have been. We didnt realize this until we got to a lookout point (which was BEAUTIFUL and completely made then whole ride worthwhile) from which we could see both sides of the island and the sea all around us--there we met an old man who was born on Roatan and moved to the states for business in his adult life but was now moving back to retire in paradise. He told us that the left turn we should have made was down at the base of the mountains nearby where we had gotten liquados and that if we wanted to cross the island, it was impossible to continue the route we were taking without going all the way to the east tip of the island another 20 miles up hill. So, we left him and wend back to the liquado place and turned right up an even steeper mountain pass (all dirt and mudholes) to cross the island. We got a ride up the steepest part (when i say steep, i mean more than 60* steep) from an Expat in a pickup truck who took us to the peak (where again, we could see the sea all around us) and he told us that it should be all down hiss from there--he was wrong...but we did have a good 10-15 mins of fantastic downhill riding before the road leveled off and then got hilly again. After 5 hours if this intense riding and no eating (no open comodores!) and a few hours without water, we finally found a pulperia that had some kind of juice product (think sunny-D) of which i gorged on 3 bottles. We rode for about two or three more hours before we finally started seeing signs for West End again, and we pulled into town just as the sun was going down. We returned the bikes (unfortunately we had to do a nighttime key drop-off and were unable to gloat to the bike-shop folks about our epic ride) after 36-40 miles of steep nonstop biking and went back to the cabin, only to find that the Danish couple had anticipated our ravenous hunger and had begun to cook us a delicious dinner of shells and meat-sauce with red wine which was ready and on the table just as soon as we showered and hydrated (amazing!). It was a fantastic dinner, and we finished to play dice and cards with refreshments again by candlelight. A great end to our time on the Honduran Bay Island of Roatan.

Feb 12: Woke up mad early to hop a cab for the seaport at 6am to get the 7am catamaran to the mainland at La Ceiba so that we could hopefully get all the way back to Antigua in the same day (with no flaws it should have been abt 12 hrs or travel 14-15 hrs if you include transfers and a lunch break) we arrived in La Ceiba on time, cruising across the Caribbean Sea and jumping in a cab to the bus terminal from the Ceiba Seaport. We booked the first express bus to Copan (the border town where we planned to transfer to Antigua Guatemala on a 4pm shuttle) through San Pedro Sula (the biggest Honduran city in the north that all Hondu buses transfer through) we were scheduled to arrive in SPS at 1230pm but because the driver wanted to inflate his wages, he stopped for everyone in the road who wanted a ride and took their cash bribes in lieu of prepaid tickets (the bus was supposed to be express!--at least we had seats) we didn't arrive in SPS until 230pm and the last bus was supposed to leave at 2. I was fuming because i had planned on going all the way back to Antigua, and was instead probably stuck in San Pedro (not where i wanted to be at all and still 10 hrs from Antigua). Luckily, after i yelled at the man in the bus company office for a while, he told me that there was an added bus to Copan at 3pm and we would make it to the border by that night (i was still upset that we were to loose a night when we only had 4 more travel days left, but glad at least that we were going to stay in Copan Ruinas which is a nice little cobblestone town, instead of SPS, which is an industrial monstrosity) Anyway, I got a liquado (milk and peanut) and felt better. We arrived in Copan after dark and checked into a well rated travelers hostel where we met an american guy from Wisconsin or something who i really didn't like but with whom we ate dinner anyway, because i know it can be difficult to travel alone, especially at mealtime--that being said, we didnt linger over coffee and cake. We also booked a 4am shuttle direct to Antigua (a non-stop tourist shuttle) while we were out getting dinner. It was Saturday night and the town had a really nice vibe, but we were too tired to go out (and had an early morning shuttle to wake up for) so we went back to the hostel to crash. There we met a nice Australian guy in the dorm who would have been better to eat dinner with (but oh well), who we chatted with a bit (and who gave me anti-itch cream!! --i was really bitten up in the jungle a few days prior) and then we went to bed.

Feb 13: Woke up early in the morning to catch the shuttle to Antigua--we got out at the border for visa processing and got out of paying the exit fee because we had only been in the country a short while, and then haggled down the entrance fee too, because we didn't have enough cash in the right currencies. No problems though, i think the immigration guy was too tired and bored to care. The ride back to Antigua (6hrs) was quick and uneventful, and we got back before mid-day and booked an overnight shuttle to Flores to leave that night. We got into the villa (where i had left our bags and stuff we didn't need to bring to Hondu with us and swapped our dirty stuff for clean stuff, and packed smaller bags for the 4 days we had left. We spend the day relaxing and got pizza from our old favorite pizza place in Antigua. The shuttle to take us to the main terminal in the Capitol where we would switch to a first class pullman coach bus collected us at 6pm. We packed empanadas, and granola, and water--as well as aspirin in anticipation of bad seats. We arrived in Guate at 8 and had a hour to get dinner before the coach left at 9pm (Fried chicken from a Chinese restaurant (shoulda gotten chapsooi!) with fried rice, potatoes, and hot sauce. The bus came for us and miraculously, I slept through the whole night on that bus, until they woke us up at 6am to hop into a Shuttle that took us from Santa Elana (the bigger city on the shores of Lago de Peten Itza) over the land bridge to the quaint island city of Flores. It was 630 when we arrived at the hotel (picked by the shuttle driver--maybe he got commission, but i was still to drowsy to make my own decisions) and I went right to sleep while Chris negotiated a return trip and a tour (with transportation) the following day. Actually, the hotel worked great because we essentially got a free night's sleep at that hotel, because i didn't roll out of bed until 10am, and that first sleep was in the same day as the following nights sleep--woohoo!

Feb 14: Woke up late, got breakfast at the restaurant of another hotel (looked fancy but the breakfast was only Q35). Breakfast was amazing; eggs, potatoes, fried plantains, fresh fruit, grilled veggies (in lieu of bacon), whole grain texas toast, hot tea, and a small mixed liquado were all included--plus the fantastic view of the lake in the early morning sun. We were both still dead tired after breakfast (even though i was out for the whole bus ride, it was was from restful and i could hardly keep my eyes open) so we went back to the hotel, plopped into our beds and slept through until dinner. We got burgers with grilled pina and mango drinks at a neat little place on the lake called Cool Beans. Still tired from the bus ride and all the days of travel before that (and with a 4am shuttle to Tikal picking us up the next morning) we didnt stay out too late.

Feb 15: We had an early morning shuttle for Tikal, so we got up before the sun and waited outside the hotel with a crowd of other tourists who were hoping (as we were) to get to the park before sunrise--a good sales pitch. After driving around to all the hotels in town to collect tourists, the sun was practically up before we left the island--by the time we got to the national park, it was fully light and the mist was already burning off. That being said, it was still an amazing day--we had a 4 hour tour/hike through the ancient city and saw most of the temples and structures (not pyramids!) with the guide who explained the significance of everything, as well as gave the usual grave warnings about how we should see their civilizations downfall as a reflection of our own to come, etcetera... I climbed every structure i could find, including temple IV which is a massive skyscraper of a truncated pyramid rising well above the jungle canopy. There is only a steep ladder that you can take to the top--and it's mad rickety, so most people don't climb it, but it was amazing and worth it for the view, going down was an exercise of suspended terror though. I'm too tired of writing to describe all of Tikal here, but ill put pictures on picasa and you'll just have to ask me about it when i see you. After the guided tour, we left the park to get lunch at a comodor outside the gates (way to expensive inside the park). I got pollo encebollado con arroz, vegetales, y tortillas--tambien una fanta. We re-entered the park and wandered around on our own for a few more hours, discovering some more structures which of course i climbed and encircled the tops of those that i could. We also found chicle trees in the jungle and squeezed gum from the fruits--it tasted like nothing, just sticky and chewy. After hiking through the jungle for a few more hours, we hopped on board a shuttle back to Flores, and got pasta for dinner. Afterwards we went to the circus (no joke) where we saw a family of acrobats nearly kill themselves over and over (5, 6, and 7 year old sons included). It was the wildest circus I have ever seen, so dangerous, so wacky, and so inappropriate for children--who were the bulk of the audience! I wish i had brought my camera...

Feb 16: Slept in a bit (~9am) to make up for the early and long day before, checked out of the hotel, and had breakfast at a place overlooking the Lago de Peten Itza, I had pancakes with overcooked eggs, honey, jam, butter and hot sauce (dont knock it till you tried it)--also had a fresa/banano liquado and te de rosa de jamaica. Took an easy day exploring the Isla de Flores, looking for t-shirts and whatnots, decided to head off the island to Santa Elena just across the bridge to go to the market (needed sunglasses--the last pair broke). We got across to Santa Elana and drank some sodas (it was mad hot) and quickly found sun glasses ( i bought the same pair of Oakley knock-offs). We saw a sign for the Caves of Actun Kan (i recognized id from the guide book) so we walked a few kms down the road out of town to find these caves. When we got there, we paid the Q20 entrance fee and got a map and flashlights. We entered the caves which turned out to be huge, only to find that the lighting system was malfunctioning and only one of our flashlights worked. There was a no guide, so after a few hours of getting thoroughly lost underground, we emerged hot, beaten, and muddy from squeezing through cracks in the stone (looking for the 'trail') and sliding down bottomless pits in the pitch blackness. We washed off in the laundry basin of a nearby home and bought a bottle of water from the front gate for the walk home. On the way back we stopped for empanadas de pollo and liquados (i got pina) and stopped at a pharmacy for fever reducers (the hot moisture of the caves and the sunny walk back didnt do much good for my cold). We got back to the island dead tired and dirty, i bought a souvenir t-shirt and swapped it for my muddy white tee. We went to a great cafe for iced tea and collapsed on their shady hammocks for a few hours in the cool breeze by the lake. Dinnertime found us eating steaks and drinking club soda to toast the end of our trip. We loaded into a rather sketchy looking hoopdy which took us to the main terminal in Santa Elena to catch our pullman to the capitol. The bus was great, we had the top front row seats of a first class double decker (that made the entire country unfold in front of us like it was shot in 16:9). I fell asleep nicely (for the most part--except for waking up to blow my nose all the time) until dawn when we pulled into the terminal in Guate.

Feb 17: Arrived in Guatemala city on the overnight bus at 530AM and waited in the bus terminal for 15 mins until our shuttle connection to Antigua showed up. Tried to find a bathroom but only found one that charged a quarter which I didn't have. Shuttle arrived and we got in, i fell back asleep and woke up in Antigua around sunrise. Knocked on the door of the villa but no one answered (we had to get in and get Chris's stuff before 9am when the shuttles to the Airport leave--his flight home was this morning). We went to the travel agency to buy a ticket for the airport shuttle, but it was closed so we went to another which also didnt work out (computer brocken), finally the third agency was just opening and sold us the ticket with no problem. We knocked on the villa door again and got in, arranged the bags and ran for breakfast (I had chicken salad on a toasted baguette and hot tea (good for my sore throat). Got back to to the villa with time to spare, sent Chris on his way and I saw to my bags. The landlord was there and he wanted to charge me 13 bucks a night to stay at the villa which was way to much i thought esp cause the hostel only costs Q65 and it includes a nice breakfast. I grabbed my bags (way to many after ive been coming down here for 6 months and bringing more with me every time (rookie mistake) and hoofed it across the city to the hostel where i checked in and crashed in the bed to sleep for ~3hrs--after all that travel, i needed it. Woke up a few mins ago, to work on this and eat something. --> [UPDATE: from here fwd; written 2/18] After i finished writing those blog entries I checked out the movie shelf at the hostel and found 'Apocalypto', the Mel Gibson movie about the Maya in the times of Tikal's power. After just returning from Tikal, I thought it would be cool to see an interpretation of the time period (Gibson's craziness aside). I went back up to my dorm to get water and chatted with the other guy in my room for a minute, he (as well as several others) joined me in watching the movie, and then we grabbed pizza at Sunshine (mushroom and peppers). We came back to the hostel, chilled out with some tea and shared music and pictures.

Feb 18: Woke up today and got breakfast (tomato and cheese omlette, potatoes, beans, toast, and fruit) with my dormmate who then showed me a neat museum exhibit in town (which i may go back to tomorrow) and i showed him a good travel agency (he's leaving this afternoon to go to the lake). Since then, I have been working on this blog entry, its taken me days and days...i hope to keep updating...

**please comment below!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The next move

Ok folks, here is an update, I know you have been dying to read one. Im not so sure how exciting this update is going to be, or how long, but here we go.

In the past few weeks I have been taking Spanish classes, teaching English at the hotel, and selling wine at Tobacos y Vinos. It hasn’t been a very lucrative time in my life, but I have vastly improved on my Spanish since I started taking lessons from a teacher I originally worked with at a Spanish school, and then hired him privately. Hiring him privately was great because I was able to make my own lesson hours, and he came to my house to tutor me. Literally, all I had to do was roll out of bed and go downstairs to the garden where I took my lessons in the early morning sun. Each day we tackled a different tense or set of grammatical rules, and then had an hour or so of conversation using it. Normally our conversations consisted of talking about Guatemala, my travels, cultural differences between the US and Central/Latin America, and of course the ever present ‘what did you do yesterday?’.

Working at the hotel was interesting—and I’d probably say it was exactly the same as it would have been to have been tutoring the service staff at any hotel in the states. That is, I was teaching a group of adults with little-to-no experience in English, and less in formal education. That being said, they were a nice group of people, ages ranging from 18 to the late 50s. Each day was essentially a matter of reviewing the material of the previous day and hopefully building on that to teach some new material. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than expected because there was no accountability for my students. No grades or exams meant that nobody was checking on their progress. Any homework that I assigned was usually disregarded and forgotten about before the next class. As such, each day required a re-teaching of the last class. Had I more time or a plan to remain at that job in the long term, I would have written my own tests/quizzes and created a grading scheme of my own—if only to establish routine and build procedures for comparing the performance of the individual students over time. Alas, by the time I had acclimated to the class environment, I was already leaving. But more on that later…

My job at the wine shop has proven to be a rather disappointing investment (strictly monetarily speaking). After working here full-time for the past two weeks (and now that I am moving on) I have earned less than the equivalent of two hundred bucks. It’s good that I saved my earnings from working at the school last semester, that’s been enough to keep me afloat through my time in Antigua, and should easily get me through the next month or so I plan to be spending traveling. However, working here has been a positive experience—I learned a bit about cigars, even more about wine, and I now have a better understanding of the ins and outs of a business (well, a cash business). Tambien, working here was mad fun. Otherwise I would have just been sitting around at home all day with nothing to do. Unlike I had previously imagined, the shop is much busier here in the new location (that’s the reason I haven’t posted more—I anticipated more down time in the shop)—people stop in for single (or double, or triple) glasses of wine constantly, and when I’m not serving them I usually need to be washing the glasses, labeling bottles, reorganizing the shelves, taking inventory, counting cigars, or disposing of bottles—not to mention the occasional glass of wine I am forced to enjoy with a customer for far longer than I should. [the photo above is me in the entrance to the wine shop]

Anyway, all that is over now and I am on my way. A few days ago I quit my jobs, and informed my tutor and landlord that I would be leaving (good thing I only took a 2 week lease!). It’s a bit funny that I quit a job for the first time just three weeks ago, and now I have done it again, and again…I hope I’m not developing a taste for quitting! Toda via, everyone was fairly to extremely understanding, and I had no troubles squaring away my last hours and making my plans to move on.

So here’s the plan (or lack thereof): My friend who was my roommate here in Antigua last semester is flying down to Guate (today, actually) and joining me on one more epic adventure. We are not quite sure what the plan is. Originally, we were going to rent a car and drive it to Nicaragua through Salvador and back through Honduras, but upon further investigation, it seems as if I can only drive out of the country as far as one border away, and Nicaragua is one border too far. Furthermore, the rental prices are about the same as in the states, and that’s pretty high when paying in Quetzales. Regardless, we are going to sally onward, probably bussing or thumbing it down to Nica—I really want to see the volcanoes there which are said to be an entirely different breed of awesome than the ones we have here in Guate. I’m thinking that maybe we can rent a car in Honduras and drive only for the southern leg of our trip, that will cut down on rental and gas costs (esp. cause everything is a bit cheaper in Honduras) as well as ameliorate the one-border issue. It makes sense in my head.

This whole debacle should take no more than the next three and a half weeks—we need to be back in Guate by the 22nd for my friend to fly home to return to work. After that, I may fly home later that week, or stay until my planned fly-home-date in mid-March. If I stayed, those few extra weeks, it would give me the chance to go to Lake Atitlan and take more Spanish lessons in San Pedro—a town I have always wanted to plant myself for more than a few days—and consolidate what I have learned here since the beginning of January (or August, really). I haven’t decided this yet, and I have a feeling that it will be more of a last minute decision.

Anyway, once I get home in March (or whatever) I will hopefully be able to start teaching in the states (in NY, back in Rochacha). I heard that there may be an opening in the ESOL department in the Rochester City Schools and I have submitted my application to them. If I have any luck, I will be able to work the rest of the year in Rochester (spring up there is beautiful), and either continue working in NY or choose another international destination in which to teach for the following year. Everyone tells me that now is the time, and I couldn’t agree more—I just wish that deciding to keep traveling was more of an easy decision for me. Well, regardless of all that, I will probably be returning to Italy to teach around the boot for the summer again—that’s always a blast, and it’ll be good to have some Euros in my pocket again.

Well I think that about wraps it up for this post, keep reading and please comment!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

la luna

tonight, the moon is so bright that my fingernails are glowing bright white...

A New Year in Antigua

Ok folks-

So yes, this is the first blog post that I have written in FOREVER, I realize that. But you know me, super important, super busy, doing all the important and busy making awesome things that you wish you could be doing…that’s not to say that you aren’t awesome as well—if you weren’t awesome, you wouldn’t be reading such an awesome blog.

Anyway, to get to the point…I have returned to Antigua, Guatemala and will be staying here for at least a couple of weeks. The first thing I did when I got here was to quit my job at Colegio Boston. The atmosphere was crappy, the pay was insulting, and honestly I got little reward out of the day until I left. After only one day back at school, I decided that this most certainly was not the place for me. So on day two, I walked into the director’s office and told her so. I also told her that I was willing to give her two weeks’ notice so that she could find an adequate replacement and have me train him or her for the tumult they were about to endure…unfortunately, by the end of the day, they had found a replacement—no joke, the literally (not figuratively) hired the first guy to walk in off the street. He walked in off the street about two hours after I gave my notice. Because they are so unabashedly cheap in blatant disregard for the interests of their students and the parents who pay thousands of dollars (x8 in quetzales) to send their students to “the best bilingual school in Antigua” (read: “the most expensive and therefore most prestigious school with a front as a bilingual school in Antigua”), they decided that they didn’t want to pay me for those two weeks if they had another teacher in the classroom, green though he may be. Whatever, no big deal, I hated that place anyway, and two weeks less of that torture is no skin off my back.

Anyway, the quitting process itself was great. Seconds after I told the director that I was not going to be staying on for the year, the owner if the school walked in and began to commend me for my excellent teaching the previous year, cvelling about how pleased she was that I had returned, and about how she only expected the best from me and my students in the commencing year. The director tried to interrupt her several times, but the owner ignored her so that she could continue her rant. Finally, the director cut in (quite rudely, I might add, as I was enjoying the owner’s endless stream of complements) and informed the director that I intended on staying for only two more weeks. The director lost the ability to speak for just a moment, and then asked me if I was staying in Antigua. I told her that I had planned to and she immediately offered me a job as an English tutor for the staff at a hotel she had a share in…the swankiest and most expensive hotel in town. Of course I accepted, much to the chagrin of the director, who I am sure at this point would have been happy to feed me to the wolves. This new job pays per hour over four times what my job at the school paid.

Anyway, since then, I have been tutoring at the hotel, which has been a challenge, because the students are adults, and rather uneducated and lacking in a lot of the school culture I have come to take for granted in secondary school classrooms. Yesterday, I spent two hours teaching and re-teaching, “Hello, how are you? My name is…” It’s not the easiest group to teach, but that’s part of the challenge of being a teacher.

I have also picked up hours at the wine and cigar shop that I worked at in the fall. As I am writing this, I am on my first shift since returning and quite a few things have changed. Firstly, the entire operation has moved across the street into a different location. It is smaller, but it is now within the domain of a restaurant (I’m not really sure how the lease works) and they are able to sell wine by the glass, so now there are more people around, and it functions kind of like a wine bar…except there are no tips for the quality servers. Also, I make a fifth per hour what I make tutoring, so in the five hours that I will have worked by the end of the day today, I will have made half as much as I earned in the two hours I worked yesterday. C’est ca.

I have also been taking Spanish lessons with a private tutor for the past week and have really noticed a marked improvement in both my understanding, as well as my ability to speak with ease and accuracy. After just a few intensive lessons (they are one-on-one) I have learned and put to use quite a bit or grammar as well as vocabulary. I think most importantly, however, is the fact that these lessons force me to speak in Spanish for three straight hours every day which has made me much more comfortable with my ability. Also, I have really good teacher which is always important.

Ok, well I have two and a half more hours of wine to sell. Keep checking in on this blog, I should be writing plenty more as it’s a good way to use my time at the shop.