Saturday, September 27, 2008

Honduras: La Ceiba - Utila - Copan Ruinas

It´s been a bit longer than usual since my last update, and quite a bit has happened.  I think we left off with me having a great time snorkeling in Belize, then having a long trip to Honduras via some uber-sketchy port towns in Guatemala.  Well, picking up from there, the last leg of the way from the above-mentioned uber-sketchy port town to La Ceiba, Honduras, went very well.  It was the longest stretch of traveling I´ve done solely in chicken buses.  It´s also the first time I´ve crossed international borders in chicken buses.  And I did it all alone -- I was the only non-native traveler the entire way, and I didn´t have a single problem.  Needless to say, I felt very intrepid and highly competent by the time I arrived safe and sound in La Ceiba.

La Ceiba is the third largest city in Honduras, and has the (very erroneous) reputation of being the party town of the country.  (On that note, I´ll just observe that Farr West, UT, has about as much of a party scene as La Ceiba... enough said.)  I took a down day in that town to do laundry, mail postcards, get over the weariness of traveling in uber-sketchy Guatemalan port towns, and wait for Kim, a friend of mine from law school who was coming from El Salvador. 

The plan from there was to go to Utila, one of Honduras´s Bay Islands out in the Caribbean, and spend a week diving.  The Bay Islands have some of the best diving in the world, and they are the cheapest place in the world to get diving certifications.  I had been really looking forward to diving -- especially after everything I saw in Belize, I couldn´t wait to see what the world of SCUBA had to offer.  It was going to be the highlight of the trip.

But no.  Cruel fate intervened in the form of my crappy eardrum.  The night before we were to take the ferry out to Utila my ear started feeling funny; within a couple of hours, it was very painful, draining, and smelling very bad.  All the telltail signs of an ear infection that I remembered from when I was little and had them so often.  Needless to say this put a major damper on things.  Not only did I know it would prevent me from diving, I also knew that I would be totally miserable unless I could get some good antibiotics.  Fortunately there are two boats to the islands, so Kim and I got tickets for the afternoon boat so that I could go to the doctor in the morning.

It wasn´t too hard to find a doctor - we just went to a dentist´s office and told him I had an ear problem and she pointed me to an ear-nose-throat specialist in a nearby clinic.  I was very impressed with the doctor´s competence (and his ability to show me the inside of every opening in my head on a TV screen in front of me -- it was at once fascinating and disgusting, and it was definitely more than I would have voluntarily shown Kim...).  He agreed that this was an ear infection, confirmed my fears about diving, and proceeded to proscribe a bunch of medications that I was supposed to take.  There ended the competency.  From there on, I was thrown to the wolves of lab technicians and pharmacists who had no idea what tests were supposed to be done (honestly, the woman said she couldn´t take a culture of my ear because I had brushed my teeth that morning) or what drug the doctor had prescribed (I went to six different pharmacies that day and no one had a clue, and of course the doctor wouldn´t answer the phone when I told the pharmacists to call him and ask him for an alternative drug). 

By the end of all this running around, I was fit to be tied.  Not only was I extremely disappointed about not being able to dive, but I was hot and frustrated after walking around in 90-degree tropical heat with an ear infection chasing a non-existent antibiotic, and also the ferry departure was coming up.  So I made a frantic phonecall to dad to get his advice.  He was very helpful (turns out my diarrhea medicine also works for ear infections) and it was good to chat with him and mom for a few minutes.  Unfortunately, I don´t think I was the cheeriest of conversationalists -- in fact, I felt really bad that after almost two months of being gone, all I could do was be grumpy and in a rush.  (Fortunately, I´m feeling much better and am planning on calling again in the next day or two.)

Just to finish quickly with this harrowing tale of ear infections, the diarrhea medicine worked great.  I am now doing much better -- haven´t had pain or draining since that first night.  The ear still isn´t 100 %, but it´ll do.

Now, back to the island.  Kim still wanted to dive, so we found a diving school that had accommodation included in the package and we got a double room so I would be able to stay with her.  While she went to the diving classes and on the dives during the day, I consoled myself with the delights of a caribbean island.  Needless to say, I was quickly consoled.  We were right on the water, with a jetty out into the bay with hammocks and benches where I could read and sunbathe, and when I got too hot, I could just jump off the jetty into the clear blue water.  Just down the street was also a beautiful private beach, with white sand, palm trees, incredibly blue, clear water.  It was also perfect for reading and tanning -- and you could rent kayaks to go out into the coral reef off the tip of the island.  And in town, you could rent bicycles.  With these resources at my fingertips, and the money that I would have used for the diving course now liberated, I had a great time!  The first couple of days I spent doing nothing but reading, swimming, and tanning.  Then I spent a day kayaking, a day cycling, and then another day reading on the beach.  It was really perfect.  SO relaxing!  By the end I actually didn´t mind a bit that I wasn´t diving - it was so much more relaxing just to read, swim, get milkshakes, sleep, etc., instead of having to learn how not to die while breathing 30 meters under the sea...  Someday I´ll get my diving certification, but for the moment I have no regrets.

Oh, and there was some fantastic people watching on the island!  One night Kim and I were eating dinner on the veranda of this restaurant on the main street.  Next to us was an older Scottish couple who were clearly regular vacationers on the island.  They seemed to know all the other middle-aged white vacationers on the island -- looked like some sort of seasonal expat community.  Anyway, two things happened almost at once that were extremely memorable when a Russian guy showed up.  The Scots and the Russian were very happy to see each other and were giving hugs and kisses.  Well, another woman at a neighboring table, obviously very drunk, got excited at the prospect of hugs and kisses, so she got up and got in line - after the Russian had hugged and kissed the Scottish woman this new person asked if she could be next.  After an awkward pause, which told me the guy didn´t know her from Eve, he jovially agreed and gave her a hug.  But then the woman exclaimed that she wanted a kiss -- and that we have lips, and they are for kissing, so she wanted a kiss on her lips.  Before I knew it, she literally was hanging from this Russian´s neck, kissing him on the lips.  He had to forcibly push her away, declaring "enough is enough." 

That episode was good enough in itself, but it gets better. I thought that the Russian felt awkward about the kissing because watching everything was a very pretty, VERY scantily clad younger woman at his side.  I assumed she was the girlfriend or young trophy wife.  After the drunk kisser went back to her seat, the Russian and Scots resumed their conversation.  The young woman was introduced and it was determined that she couldn´t speak a bit of English, so it was safe to proceed talking about her as if she didn´t exist.  The Scots laughed and asked if she was another "niece."  Turns out yes, and they said she was a much better looking "niece" than the last one.  They also asked the Russian if he had brought his wife to the island -- of course not, of course not -- the wife was safely back at the house in Tampa.  The Russian would be here with his "niece" for about a week, at which point he would return to wife and home, and she would go back to Russia.  Imagine Kim´s and my amazement, sitting there, listening to all this!  A mail order prostitute!  What scandal!  What juicy gossip!

And it only got better:  The next day when we were at the beach, the man and his "niece" arrived.  Again, she had about two square centimeters of fabric on her whole body.  And they proceeded to do a soft-core porn photoshoot on the beach.  It was really appalling.  The only consolation was that they were clearly making themselves ridiculous carrying on in such a way, and we noticed that by the end, the "niece´s" extremely exposed derriere had a bright red glow (apparently the sun doesn´t shine there quite so brightly in Russia...).

So much for gossip.  After the very enjoyable week spent on the island, we headed back to La Ceiba, and up to a lodge in the jungle.  This was similar to the place I stayed before - out in the woods, in a very scenic location, with separate little cabins, a natural pool, and great food.  It was really beautiful, relaxing, and one of the best places I´ve stayed all along.  And it was run by Germans -- the efficiency and competency were a balm to my poor distressed soul. 

We stayed at the lodge for one night, then went out on a jungle hike to one of the nearby waterfalls.  The hike was good, and the waterfall was very beautiful.  Hiking in the jungle is a strange sort of adventure because on the one hand it is very similar to every other sort of forest hiking - you´re surrounded by a bunch of trees, mud, dead leaves, etc.  But also very different - because everything is so much more extreme.  I mean, there are ants the size of small children, the spiders are similarly alarming.  The frogs are large and unafraid.  And there are vines and trees of all sorts everywhere.  That´s why you need a guide.  With a machete. 

Machetes are incredible things.  The amount of trail that our 70-year-old guide cleared with nothing more than a rusty machete would have taken an entire scout troop at least three days.  I had expected him to be able to handle the odd vine or tall grass.   I had not expected him to tackle entire tree trunks that had fallen across the path.  By the end of the hike, Kim and I agreed that at the end of time, the survivors will be cockroaches and this old guy with his machete.

After the hike we proceeded to scandalize the dear Germans by saying that we were leaving the lodge so we could go back to La Ceiba to watch the presidential debate (no TV in the jungle, you see).  We got back in time to have dinner before the debate, so we went out to a place by the beach and had hamburgers.  They were good, but during the dinner a massive storm rolled in.  There was lightning and thunder like I had never seen/heard (the kind of thunder that literally knocks the air out of your lungs, and that you can feel with the hair on your arms), and rain like crazy.  Of course the power went out and we finished eating with an oil lamp.  The power eventually came back on, and we thought that was the end of our adventure and that we would be able to return and watch the debate.  WRONG!  We get outside the restaurant and, to our amazement, the streets are rivers!  I don´t mean that the gutters were full, I mean literally that the streets were up to our knees or higher with running water.  Incredible!  We made our way toward our hotel, but as we got farther, we saw that the flooding was only getting deeper.  Not exactly thrilled with the idea of swimming in such water, we flagged down a big pickup that let us hitch a ride in the back.  It took us through the town nearer our hotel, and to a spot where the flooding was less.  Fortunately we were on the third floor of the hotel, so we were fine.  And since the power stayed on, we were able to watch the debate while we dried off.  Talk about an experience!  That´s definitely all the experience I want with storms and flooding in third-world countries.

That´s it for the adventures in the Islands and La Ceiba.  This morning Kim and I parted ways.  I´m now in a town called Copan Ruinas, a small town near a major Mayan ruins site and near the border.  I´ll stay here for a couple of days before heading back to Guatemala for my flight back to the US on Wednesday. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Honduras: La Ceiba (Also, snorkeling in Belize)

Whew!  Today was an adventure!  I traveled from Puerto Barrios (a super dodgy port town in Guatemala) to La Ceiba, Honduras.  I left at 5:30am, changed buses four times, crossed one international border, took two taxies, and located a hostel that was identified incorrectly on the map -- all before 5pm, and all by myself.  That¨s right - for whatever reason I didn¨t see a single other nonlocal traveler the entire way.  It¨s the first time I¨ve traveled so far on totally public transportation and it¨s the first time I¨ve done it all by mynlonesome (it did feel a little lonesome trecking through the no-man¨s land on the border by myself at the crack of dawn...).  I¨m tired now, but happy with the trip.  La Ceiba and this hostel are SO much better than the places I¨ve been the past couple of days...

Speaking of which, I should give you a quick update.  I was chatting with Mom and Ashley last night, so they know a bit, but here¨s more for the rest of you.  After my last email, I took the bus into Belize.   It was fun to see how, immediately upon crossing the border from Guatemala, the entire feel of the place changed -- it was very obvious that this had been a British colony.  The houses were not the spanish-influenced stucco houses that centered on a courtyard, but rather wooden bungalows with verandas. Also, there were a lot more black people here, having descended from slaves.  And of course everyone spoke English.

The bus dropped me at Belize City, and I immediately jumped on the ferry to Caye Caulker.  There I stashed my backpack in a hostel and headed for the beach.  The first day I just hung around the beach, alternating between paddling about with some rented snorkel gear and readingon the pier.  It was very nice, and I thought it was a good idea to try to get a bit more of a tan before heading out for longer snorkeling expeditions at the barrier reef.  Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia), and its snorkeling and diving are world-renowned.  I did two excursions to the reef.  The first was an all-day affair, and it was amazing!  We started out at the ¨shark and ray alley¨ were we got to swim surrounded by nurse sharks (not dangerous to humans, but still about as big as me) and sting rays (also generally not dangerous to humans, but also about as big as me).  It was so cool to be there with these creatures and to feel totally safe!  Then we headed out to a coral garden¨ where we got to see a dense thicket of corals with all the profusion of colorful fish you can imagine.  There were giant ugly black fish, dainty angelfish, tiny little fish of brilliant red, blue, yellow, or orange, and so many more.  I even saw an eel pretending to be invisible as it waited for tasty morsels to swim by...  I felt like I was swimming in the middle of a National Geographic documentary -- kept expecting to have some generic British accent start narrating in my head about the life cycle.  Finally, we went to another location where we saw more corals, but before the corals, we went into a deeper channel and saw sea turtles and manatees!!  Those were by far the highlights.  Sea turtles are very pretty and graceful - you just want to go up and play with them (but you can¨t because they¨re SUPER protected).  And the manatees (which I hadn¨t been expeting at all - there were three of them) were huge!  We were about 25 feet away, and they were so large and slow moving.  I could also see how, from a distance, they could give rise to the mermaid legends (at least, one theory says that¨s where the mermaid legend came from).  After that first day, I was so excited I just wanted to do more.  I couldn't afford the time or money for another full day excursion, so I just did a half-day excursion the next day.  This was to a younger section of the reef, so we didn¨t have the big sharks and manatees, but there were still tons of fish and even more ra ys.  It started pouring rain while we were out at our third location on this day, which was cool because you could watch from underneath the surface as the drops hit the water (and feel them on your back, too), but otherwise the underwater life remained entirely unaffected by the rain!  As the guide said, the fish are already wet...

After the second excursion began my two and a half day trek to Honduras.  The first leg was to leave the islands and stay the night in Belize City on the mainland.  Then I had to get from Belize City to a place called Punta Gorda, where I could take a little boat to Guatemala.  (During that ferry ride we saw dolphins!  So beautiful!)

I stayed the night in Guatemala and finished the journey today, as I described above.  These long travel legs are very tiring and I usually end up in pretty crappy lodgings because I have to stay in places far from the ordinary tourist track.  That¨s also when I feel the lonliest.  In the big tourist spots it's easy to find people to hang out with.  For example, I spent most of my time in Belize with a Belgian couple speaking French of course!).  But on these long trips, unless you happen to run into someone who's going the same way you are, you¨re stuck going by yourself.  Fortunately I have Gone with the Wind (which I've nearly finished) and my iPod to keep me occupied.

I¨ll be in La Ceiba for a day or two probably.  I need to do some housekeeping (laundry, send postcards, etc.), and I¨m waiting to meet up with Kim, a friend from law school (whom you met, and who was also qt the school in Xela with me).  We may do some day trips from here, but the main goal is to get out to the Bay Islands.  These are supposed to be incredibly beautiful and some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world.  I¨m planning on getting my diving certification here and doing some dives!  Should be fun.  (The islands and this part of the mainland coast were also the heart of pirate territory back in the day -- I keep thinking of Pirates of the Caribbean...).

That's it for now.  I¨ll write more soon.  

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Guatemala: Tikal - Semuc Champey - Flores

As you can see from the subject, I'm back in Guatemala -- and I definitely have some fun adventures to recount.  But before the travel log, I'll vent some of my complaints with a short list of things I would do if I were in charge:

First, I would outlaw Doritos.  Honestly, whoever thought it was a good idea to make those things and sell them to the general public clearly had no taste buds -- and had certainly never sat in a 98-degree mini-van stuffed full of 15 Israelis, one of whom was chomping those damned chips in quiet oblivion to the amount of suffering his breath was inflicting on the rest of us.  And yes, by "the rest of us" I mean "me." 

Second, I would require all people who want to run any sort of business to take a test of minimal competency.  One question on the test would be:  When you have a bus that holds 12 people, should you sell tickets to 14 Israelis and 1 American?  This is a really hard question because it involves both a math analysis and a stupidity analysis -- and on both analyses, the answer is clearly NO.  Because when you tell the American, who having sensed rampant incompetence had gotten up early enough to be the first person in line so he could get a good seat, that he is going to have to switch buses and sit on a makeshift, crappy seat for the next 7 hours while the German couple next to him snuggled and the temperature climbed to the above-mentioned 98 degrees, he is going to be VERY crabby and will make little effort to shield you from the brunt of said crabbiness for the next seven hours. 

Third, and finally, I would mandate the distribution of knee-belts to every male member of the population, and would levy a fine upon every male passenger above the age of 6 who is found in a vehicle without said knee-belt strapped about his knees.  I mean really, is it THAT hard for men to sit in a seat without splaying their legs wide open on both sides?  Women manage to sit with their legs nicely straight in front of them.  And I seem to have no problem doing the same thing for hours on end.  Yet every time I sit next to a guy, you'd think he was holding an invisible beach ball between his legs.  So, knee-belts for everyong.  And if you don't like that, then I'll require that men wear short skirts until they learn to behave better. 

There.  That's my rant.  It should give you a sense of the bus ride I just had.  And now for the fun stuff.

After I sent my last email, I took off from Palenque on a day-long trek back to Guatemala -- this time to the steamy jungles of the northern lowlands -- and when I say it was over the river and through the woods, I'm not kidding.  We drove for about 3 hours through the jungle of Chiapas, until we got to the river bordering Guatemala and Mexico.  Then we got on little boats and sped down the river for about 45 minutes to the next town on the Guatemalan side.  Once there, we got out, had our passports stamped, and then piled into another minivan for the last 4 hours of our trek.  The whole way was through almost entirely unpopulated jungle and countryside.  This is clearly the least developed province of Guatemala -- I felt like some colonial traveler journeying toward the Heart of Darkness. 

Not that there was much darkness.  Instead, the thing on everyone's mind was the glaring sun.  It was SOO hot!  It's got to be in the high 90s during the day, cooling off to about 86 at night, with as much humidity as you can possibly imagine.  And it's different from the heat and humidity you'd get in places like Washington DC or New York.  There you might get the same temperatures, but the sun won't feel so brutal - somehow the humidity makes the sun feel soft.  On the other hand, in the deserts of Nevada or Utah, you'll get the brutal sun, but at least you don't have the smothering humidity.  To get a sense of what it feels like here, take the brutal heat of the Nevada sun and combine it with the smothering humidity of the southern US.  Pretty miserable.

But the ruins were amazing!!  Tikal is the largest Mayan city in the world, and was supposedly the most important during it's heyday.  It's composed of about 5,000 ruined structures, and it has a network of neighboring ruins that extends across hundreds of thousands of acres in northern Guatemala.  I joined with a group of European tourists and got a guide to take us into the ruins park at 4:30am (had to leave at 3am!) so that we could watch the sunrise from the top of the tallest Mayan temple in the world.  We had to hike through the jungle for about 30 minutes to get to the temple -- it was kind of eery to be walking through the jungle, with giant drops of water splatting down from time to time from the trees, and seeing through those trees the black, looming shapes of the pyramids rising up out of the trees.  We got to the top of the giant pyramid just as the sky was turning grey, and we sat in virtual silence until the sun was fully up.  SO amazing! We were much higher than the surrounding jungle treetops, and we could see the tops of other temples emerging here and there from the forest canopy.  And in addition to the beautiful red sunrise, the thing that was most arresting were the sounds:  There were bird cries of all sorts, occasional jaguar calls, and the incredibly creepy sounds made by howler monkeys.  Honestly, the first time I heard the howlers, I thought some prankster was playing a recording of something you'd have on your front porch during Halloween to scare the daylights ouf of trick-or-treaters.  Apparently the monkeys aren't all that big (we never saw the howlers, just spider monkeys), but their cry sounds huge and can be heard for five kilometers through the jungle.

Once the sun was up, we took off on tours through the site.  This one is MUCH bigger than the one at Palenque.  We couldn´t go inside any of the structures, like we could in Mexico, but we got to climbe up a lot more.  The archaeologists have restored enough of the site that it was easier to get a sense that this really was a sophisticated, thriving metropolis at one point.  And at the same time, there was enough still to be excavated, that it was hard to take in the sheer scope of it all.  I took lots of pictures, so hopefully I'll be able to convey a sense of it when I get home.

After seeing Tikal, I took three days and struck off into the center of Guatemala.  A friend of mine had gone to a place there called Semuc Champey, and swore that it was the best place in Guatemala.  Not wanting to miss it, I took a seven-hour bus ride to a little town called Lanquin -- and proceeded to enjoy what was certainly a major highlight of the trip so far.  First of all, there was the lodge I stayed at.  It's called El Retiro, and it was situated at the bottom of this gorgeous ravine.  It was made of all wood buildings on stilts with thick thatched roofs of palm leaves.  There were massive tropical flowers everywhere, with long lawns and hammocks hanging from trees, and a river flowing by that you could swim in.  It was the sort of place you could just hang out and relax.  The lodge organized tours during the day, and so I signed up for one that would take me to some local sites and then to Semuc Champey.  Okay, get ready for the tour:  The first thing we did was drive up the river to a major rope swing (kind of like Ashley's, but bigger, with a faster, deeper river).  We all got to jump off it a few times.  Then we climbed out of the river and headed up the hill, following a little river to the cave it poured out of.  Here, our guide handed out a lighted candle to each of us and plunged into the water and darkness.  We followed.  We started out about waist deep in pitch blackness (water and air), but once our eyes adjusted to the feeble light, we saw the amazing limestone rock formations.  We worked our way into the heart of the mountain.  At first we just walked along up to our knees, but then it got deeper and we alternated between swimming and wading.  Eventually we came to a series of waterfalls and chutes we had to climb up or down or around.  The last waterfall was by far the coolest, because the only way forward was going straight up it -- there was a rope hanging in the middle of the torrent, and you just had to grab hold, try not to breath water, and march up the side of the waterfall!  Once at the top, the cave opened into a series of three tunnels, each one getting deeper and deeper. We swam through the first two pools (having relit our candles that had obviously gone out during the ascent of the waterfall), until we got to the last pool.  Then the guide had us climbe, one by one, up a steep cliff-like side of the third and final pool -- and then one by one he told us to jump off!  Holy Cow!!  It was one thing to jump off a giant rope swing into a river.  It was quite another to relinquish the trusty candle and jump off a ledge into pitch blackness of the cave, with a waterfall roaring nearby!  But I did it and it was fantastic.  Definitely a rush of adrenaline.  After resurfacing I swam over to the side of the pool where the water rushed in and waited for the others to finish their plunges.  By that time we had been in the dark, cool water for about an hour, so we were starting to get pretty chilled.  So we made our way back out the way we had come in (having lost some of our candles along the way).  It was an incredible experience.  I kept thinking of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, or Indiana Jones the entire time.  Really, it looked just like the movies when people make their way through dark caves.  It probably would have been more convenient to have had a head lamp or something, but there was something really exciting about using candles.

After the cave, we went tubing down the river -- enjoying the warmer water and the even warmer sun that quickly banished the shivers we'd had by the time we were done in the dark.

Finally we made our way to Semuc Champey.  This is a series of pools formed in the limestone riverbed.  The amazing thing is that they are incredibly clear and blue.  Think of the pictures you've seen of Caribbean lagoons (or even backyard swimming pools for that matter), and you'll have an idea of what these pools were like.  They were incredibly beautiful and perfect for swimming and sunbathing and relaxing in the afternoon. 

And through all of it I had been hanging out with some fun other travelers.  In Tikal I hung out with an Italian/French couple (who lived in Brussels), a Dutch couple, and two Dutch girls.  On the way from TIkal to Lanquin I had met up with another Italian/French couple, a French guy, and a British guy.  So we hung out a lot, enjoying each other's company, and switching back and forth between French, English and Spanish, depending who was in the conversation and which was the language most of the people understood.  These polyglot conversations are tons of fun - i remember them from when I was living in Europe - and it's so much more fun now that I am one of the people who can switch between three languages.  It's really flattering to have Europeans (most of whom speak at least three languages) be impressed by my ability to converse in multiple languages -- even after only a month, my Spanish is better than most of theirs.

Okay, the internet cafe is about ready to shut down.  And I need to go to bed anyway, since I have to leave at 5am tomorrow.  I'm heading to Belize tomorrow -- I'm hoping to make it all the way to the Cayes so I can go snorkeling for a few days before heading to Honduras.  I'll keep you posted...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Mexico: San Cristobal de las Casas - Palenque

I know I can't compete with the news of new babies, breaking ground on houses, and almond-eating cats, but since I'm leaving Mexico in the morning and wont´t have a chance to write for a day or so, I should give a quick update about the past few days.

I got into Mexico on Friday and headed straight to San Cristobal de las Casas.  It's famous for having been taken over by the Zapatistas back in the 1990s.  It's a pretty little colonial town.  It's in the mountains, so it's cool, but not nearly as cold as Xela.  I stayed in a cheap but rather crappy little posada where the mattress smelled bad, the owner rather incompetent, and the other guests friendly but weird (honestly, I really couldn't care less about how everyone who stays there has a special  little light in their eyes that makes the place special - whatever light is there is only there because it was the cheapest place in town).

Aside from being generally pretty, there wasn´t much to the town other than strolling around.  So I went to a travel agency and booked a trip to the Canon del Sumido.  So they bused me, along with two Dutch guys and a bunch of Israeli girls, off to the canyon for a two-hour boatride along a river as it flowed between 700 to 1,000 meter cliffs.  It was amazing!  The closest thing I can think of would be Brice or Zions, but with crocodiles.  Yes, that's right, crocodiles:  sitting on the banks (very still, with vultures waiting a few feet away hoping the thing was dead and not just "hiding").  Also iguanas, monkeys, pelicans, herons, egrets, kingfishers, cormorants, and bats.  In addition to the wildlife were some really good waterfalls spraying down the side of the cliffs.  Hopefully my little camera will do it all justice.  (Now I wish I had a digital camera, so I could share them.)

After a day in San Cristobal, I took the bus to Palenque.  I got in fairly early yesterday and discovered that there really is nothing to do in this litle town whose sole purpose is to facilitate tourism to the big Mayan ruins site nearby.  Since I wasn´t going to the ruins until the next day, I went about and made all my travel arrangements with the travel agencies, ate some tough carne asada with some fresh tamarindo juice, and read Gone With the Wind.  I´ve been working on that thing for about a month now (it's the only thing other than Les Miserables that I could think of that would last me long enough to make bringing the book worth it, and since Les Mis is the most annoying book ever, I went with our dear friend Scarlett -- and haven´t been disappointed, it´s a great book) and am about halfway through.  Some teenage boys who had been shining shoes took a break on the same bench I was sitting on and started talking to me.  They were convinced that I was reading the bible (what other book could possibly be so big?).  So we talked for a while about the book, where I was from, whether there were shoe-shiners in the US, etc.  They were nice enough, but the conversation lagged due to the fact that we come from totally different worlds.  They obviously couldn't relate to anything in my world, and could only guess at their frame of reference.  It was kind of weird and slightly awkward.  Then they asked me if I wanted to buy marijuana.

When I turned down the marijuana, the guys wandered away and I went to an internet cafe to check the news and emails.  Shortly thereafter about five pretty French girls came in and sat down.  It was refreshing to hear French at first, but then the girl next to me started a steady stream of complaining.  Apparently nothing worked for her and she was so frustrated and just couldn't tolerate it and blah-blah-blah.  Well, pretty soon I couldn't tolerate it either (there's nothing more annoying that a whiny French person, for some reason the language lends itself to whining as well as more romantic overtones).  So finally I just turned to her and told her (in French) that she should change computers or go someplace else.  I think she and her friends thought I was speaking another language (I mean, could I actually have said something so rude to them? surely not), so her other neighbor started explaining to me in broken English the situation.  I assured her (stil in French) that I understood perfectly well what was going on but that it was really irritating to sit next to someone who was complaining out loud about everything but without doing anything about it.  So, apparently yes, I could have said something that rude, and in French.  Oh la la.  I felt bad for a minute and then got over it when she left and I saw how much more pleasant it was to type without her complaining in my ear.

Today I went to the big Mayan ruins, my first official ruins trip of this voyage.  They were fascinating and definitely not disappointing.  I joined up with a girl from New Zealand who I had met in the hostel, and we managed to get a guide for fairly cheap.  The big piramids are appropriately impressive and huge, and the other buildings very intricate and interesting as well.  My favorite aspect was the complete absence of curves in the architecture.  Unlike Roman, Greek or other European or Mideastern architecture, the Mayan architecture is totally angular.  Where the others would have used arches, the Mayans have this trapezoidal structure that is clearly just as effective in holding up a roof for thousands of years, but still totally foreign seeming.  Sometimes its fun to see how two groups of people on different sides of the world can come up with the same things; other times its fun to see how they come up with such different things to serve the same purpose.

After the ruins, I went to two nearby waterfalls.  They were also very impressive - exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to find in the middle of a jungle:  huge roaring cataracts of water.  One was just really big and tall with lots of spray and noise.  The other was a kilometer-long series of falls and pools that should have been incredibly beautiful because the water is normally super clear and bright blue.  Last night, however, we had a rainstorm to end all rainstorms, so the water today looked like chocolate milk.  The falls were still impressive, but not nearly as beautiful.  And I couldn't work up the will to swim in it.

Roughly paralleling my own activities today was a big group of Mormon tourists.  Yep, they were there in full force at the ruins and the falls, with Utah hairdos and modest tops.  At one point their guide (who was also American), climbed up on one of the temples and started reading (at the top of his lungs) the King Benjamin speach, while everyone else waited below.  It was kind of a cool idea - and it brought home how realistic it could be for lots of people to have heard what he was saying - but it was a little embarassing to have him doing it right there where everyone else was.  It was fun, though, to talk to my guide about the many groups of Mormons who come down here.  He didn't know all the details, but he knew that we have some sort of unusual interest in the Mayan culture and religion.

Okay, that's it for now.  I'm running out of time on the computer and I don't want to have to spend more pesos.  I'm off first thing in the morning to Guatemala, where I'll see some more big ruins, some more big waterfalls, and maybe some caves before heading to Belize.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Guatemala: Xela (Week 4)

I can´t believe my spanish classes are almost over!  I just bought my bus ticket to go to San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico on Friday.  I´ve had a great time learning spanish and living a relaxed  (chilly) life here in Xela, but I´m definitely excited to get down into the jungles and see the ruins, beaches, and etc.

Speaking of getting "down", Dad, you will be interested to know that Xela is 7,660 feet above sea level.  So you can imagine that although everything is green, the climate is quite chilly where I am, especially at night.  It´s definitely a mountain climate. 

And speaking of mountains, this weekend my friends and I decided not to go on any weekend trip, but rather to stay in town and climb a nearby volcano.  We climbed Santa Maria, a dormant volcano with a peak of 12,375 ft above sea level.  And I assure you we climbed all the way to the top.  I think the only other mountains I´ve climbed all the way to the top of are Timpanogos and Mt. Hood.  It´s such a fun feeling to be hiking (virtually straight up) for hours, and then all of a sudden to find yourself looking over the edge into nothing but a downward slope on the other side.  The downward slope of this mountain was particularly interesting because there was an active crater about half-way down the mountain that erupted about five minutes after we got to the top.  Talk about amazing!  It sounded like a train or an airplane flying low overhead, and it lasted about 10 minutes. Lots of steam and ash billowing up, but no red-hot lava.  I was happy to be on the dormant main cone rather than down at the little crater.

We hung out on top of the mountain for a while, then headed back down and into town.  We didn´t stay in town long, though.  I had wanted to go to church, but none of the churches ended up having afternoon meetings, so I joined the others on another trip out to the volcanic hot springs.  The springs were as pleasant as the first time, and my weary legs appreciated the hot water a lot more.  It was great to sit in the hot water, with cool rain hitting my face, and chat with the other random people there.

Yoga has been going well, too.  I finished up my week´'s membership, but since I´m leaving so soon, I probably won´t keep going. I had a pretty funny conversation with the yoga instructor, though.  After one class he asked me where I had been practicing.  I told him that I had been doing yoga in New York.  He said he could tell because I had really stood out in the class as someone who knew what I was doing.  Then he started asking me all these questions about what type of yoga I had been doing, and if i knew certain sequences, and I had no idea what he was talking about!  I clearly thought I was yogi/peace person, when in reality I´m just a neurotic law student who wanted to destress...  I did take his encouragement, though, and came one day for an advanced yoga class -- which about did me in.  They were doing all sorts of crazy positions and stunts that I just did not have the upper-body strength to do.  It was a good workout, though....

Okay, that´s all the travel log for now.  I´m leaving on Friday to start the rest of my trip.  In the interest of keeping you au courant with where I am, in case you need to know for some reason, here´s a rough outline of where I´ll be over the next few weeks:  From Friday until Monday I´ll be in southern Mexico at San Cristobal and Palenque.  Then I´ll be back in northern and central Guatemala until Sept 14.  I´ll spend three days in Belize, and then head to Honduras where I´ll be from the 18th to the 29th. Then I head back to Guatemala and the flight back to DC.

I won´t have the daily free computer access that I´ve had so far.  But I will be online fairly frequently.  Most hostels have internet now, and there are lots of cheap internet cafes in the towns.  So I´ll most likely be online every couple of days.