Leaving my Comfort Zone: One iguana at a time

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Warning: this post contains pictures of faces (mine) that may frighten small children. Parental guidance suggested.

Before embarking on this trip I vowed to leave my comfort zone as much as possible. I strongly believe that that is the only way to expand my mind and grow as a person.

Just going to Central America is, of course, technically leaving my comfort zone. But in a way, traveling IS my comfort zone. I get restless in one place for too long. I crave new experiences and adventures like some people crave chocolate.

(Brb, need a snickers)

Anyway, I knew I needed more than just traveling to really leave my comfort zone. Not just leave it, squirt some gasoline on it and flick a match.

So, in Caye Caulker, I snorkeled with sting rays and nurse sharks. Then fed 4 foot tarpons by hand.

Last weekend I went to ATM Cave knowing full well I would encounter one of my biggest fears: bats.

But today. Today I willingly walked into what I can describe without exaggeration as one of my worst nightmares: an iguana sanctuary. (You may be noticing an “ugly animal” theme to my fears)

I am terrified of lizards. When I lived in South Carolina I once saw a small gecko in my laundry room, screamed like I was being murdered, and spent the remainder of the day perched on my kitchen counter making frantic calls to my mother and screeching every time it moved. I’m still surprised the authorities were not called.

So, walking into an iguana sanctuary was, well, a bit unsettling.

Back story: In Belize, green iguanas are considered a delicacy. To help protect them, the San Ignacio Resort Hotel created the Belize Iguana Project: a sanctuary and educational resource for locals and tourists. For 12 bucks you get a guided educational tour of the hotel grounds and entry to the sanctuary…where they are all crawling around like, well lizards.

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I also ate a live termite off a stick. It tasted like a carrot.
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I told myself it wouldn’t be that scary. They’re much bigger than the gecko after all. I can’t, y’know, lose one up my pant leg. (I just recoiled after writing that).

False.

It was terrifying.

Our (endlessly patient) guide brought out a plate of fruit, handed us bananas and, as he predicted, they began swarming. As a dozen iguanas began to converge on the fruit in front of me, inching forward in slow, slithery motion, a horror movie soundtrack began to play in my head. I had a fleeting thought: “this is it, this is how I’m going to die”.

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Spoiler alert: I didn’t. They’re vegetarians.

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Next up came the dreaded “holding” portion of the tour in which iguanas are placed on your body and you’re told not to “make any sudden movements”. Because that’s perfectly easy when iguanas are crawling on you.

Please allow me to present my reaction to being handed a calm, docile, 16 year old iguana.

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This picture really captures my physical reaction: 100 yard stare, drool beginning to form, mentally trying to figure out how to somehow detach my arms (similar to a lizard’s tail-see, I learned something) and flee
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My first thought was, “PLEASE GET IT AWAY FROM ME”. My second thought was “Wait what exactly happens if I make a sudden movement?” It was then quickly removed from my hands as I looked like I was either going to eat it or have a full blown panic attack (see above).

Please allow me to present a photo essay called “Trying to keep it together, and failing”

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In the last picture, vanity wins (“Get it together, you need a new profile picture”)

By the end, the iguanas requested that I never ever come back. I agreed.

Don’t let my experience dissuade you. Although the intense, completely irrational fear is still there, I’m really really glad I did it. Plus every 12 dollars goes towards helping to protect these peaceful, harmless creatures*. Worst case scenario you’ll have hideous pictures of yourself to post on the Internet for the world to see.

For more info, check out the Belize Iguana Project

*that do NOT look or behave like terrifying alien monsters that will attack me as I sleep. Not at all.

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Incredible Belize: ATM Cave, Part Two

2 days in Hopkins Belize (3)

In order to enter the cave you have to swim through chilly river water that is about 10 feet deep. The swim is pretty quick-takes only a few minutes-but from that alone I knew that this was not just another tourist trap.

Once we were all on solid ground, our tour guide Aaron began with a brief history lesson about the Mayans and the 1,200 year old cave now surrounding us. As we set off through ATM, I found myself imagining the ancient people, guided only by torches, carrying their offerings through the many twists and turns of the cave. I imagined the desperation they must have felt to be be venturing deep inside this dark, massive structure, no head lamps or helmets to protect them, hoping that their offering to the gods would be enough to end whatever suffering had led them there. I imagined their fear, their unflinching hope and their immense faith and devotion.

What we saw inside was almost overwhelming. The most incredible and intricate stalactites and stalagmites, formed one drop of water at a time. Think about that. One drop of water at a time, over the course of thousands of years created these enormous, breath taking formations. They reached down from the sky, glittering, sparkling, each one unique and radiating with history.

We climbed up and down rocks and gingerly walked around 1,200 year old artifacts. We were literally inches away from skeletons of human sacrifices and clay bowls and pots last touched over a thousand years ago.

At one point we turned off our head lamps and waded through cool waist deep waters hand in hand, as our guide echo located us in complete darkness, his flute like sounds reverberating off the ancient walls.

I’m not a religious person but I could feel a presence in that cave. Like those ancient gods were looking down upon us, awaiting our offerings.

At the end, after a daunting climb to the top, our chests heaving with exhaustion, Aaron instructed us to turn off our lamps. We complied then waited. And waited. Minutes seemed to pass in pitch blackness. Suddenly his flash light snapped on and we all stared in the direction of the beam. Then collectively gasped. Illuminated was a full, incredibly well preserved skeleton, mouth agape, splayed out on it’s back as if placed there in some ancient ritual.

It was simultaneously jarring and fascinating. I couldn’t look away. So many unanswered questions. Who was she or he? How did she get there. And why? We may never know.

On our way back out of the cave, I marveled at the last 2.5 hours: the history, the beauty, the mysteries. I felt touched by the experience in ways I didn’t know how to articulate. A week later, I still don’t. How the cave affects you is an intensely personal experience and there is so much more that I could say and describe but I’m already not doing it justice.

I was sad that I couldn’t take pictures but now I consider that a blessing. I browsed through Google image to see pictures of the cave before cameras were banned. And I realized that smiling poses and flash bulbs only take away from the enormity of the experience, they don’t capture it. The things I saw in the cave will stick with me far longer than any image on a memory stick. They weren’t just seared in my memory, but imprinted on my soul.

Lest I sound like I’m exaggerating: I highly recommend you take a visit if you’re in Belize and see it for yourself. And I also highly recommend you book with Maya walk in San Ignacio and get a tour from Aaron. According to him he has been in that cave “over 4,000 times”. Yet his passion was deep, and contagious.

I now understand why everyone says you have to go.

Because really, you have to go.

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Photo credit: mybelizeexperience.com

Incredible Belize: ATM Cave, Part One

This past Saturday, Noelle (fellow volunteer/new friend) and I went on a guided tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave.

When we signed up through Maya Walk, I balked a bit at the $85 fee (including transportation, guided tour, gear and lunch/refreshments). I pictured walking into a big cave, seeing a couple cool artifacts and formations, freaking out about bats, getting a history lesson fron our guide, then heading home. Yet, every online review I read and everyone I talked to about it excitedly recommended it.

You have to go, they said.

So I paid the fee, and we showed up at Maya Walk on Saturday morning unsure of what to expect. I was a bit groggy, wishing I’d eaten breakfast and disappointed that cameras weren’t allowed on the tour (there was an incident with a French tourist’s fallen camera and a 1,200 year old artifact).

The drive up was bumpy and winding, the roads dotted with orange groves, and a variety of trees that our guide would point out and rattle off interesting facts about (all of which I’ve forgotten). Once we arrived, we grabbed our helmets and began the 45 minute hike through a path in the broad leaf forrest leading to the cave. We trekked along the dirt path and waded through knee deep river water, careful not to lose our balance on the slippery rocks beneath. The jungle was mostly quiet, save for random choruses of squawking birds. Our tour guide informed us that the forest doesn’t come alive until after dark. Thus my quest to see a howler monkey continues.

When we arrived at the end of the trail, up the hill from the cave, we enjoyed a surprisingly tasty hot picnic lunch and some chit chat with other travelers.(Note: One big difference I’ve noticed between this trip and my Thailand trip is the amount of American travelers I’ve met. It was so rare in Thailand to run into a fellow countryman. Of course, location wise it makes sense. Still I’ve heard so often that “Americans never travel” that it’s nice to see that disproven, even on a small scale.)

Before spending 2-3 hours in a cave, we thought it would be wise to take a bathroom break and our guide pointed us in the direction of the trail to the “outhouse”. It was exactly as I imagined and yet, so much worse. The outhouse was a dilapidated wooden shack with inch wide gaps that allow you to peer inside if you’re so creepily inclined. The “toilet” was an uncovered hole on top of a platform. A sizable pile of used toilet paper sat in front of the hole. And the smell. The smell was incomprehensible. I don’t know if or when was the last time they cleaned out the ditch below the hole. But judging by the stench, it was about 1,200 years ago (“there was probably Mayan poop down there”-we laughed between gags). I’ve never peed faster in my life. I’ve seen some pretty disgusting bathrooms in my day but wooo boy, that one might take the cake.

Have I talked enough about the bathroom yet? This post was supposed to be about a majestic ancient cave.

We speed walked away from the crime scene, er, outhouse and rejoined our group. Head lamps strapped on our helmets, we headed for the cave.

To be continued

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Photo credit: Pook’s Hill Lodge via tripadvisor.com

Side note: this started as a quick post but I guess horrifying outhouses make me unnecessarily wordy.

A sample day in Caye Caulker

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8:00 am: Have a cheap and delicious Belizean breakfast at Meldy’s: Fry jack (fried dough- addictive), stewed chicken and refried beans. Resist temptation to feed adorable begging cat (they are fed after the customers leave). Take picture of the unidentified birds chirping loudly in the yard next door.
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8:30- 10:00 am: Explore the island, shop, have a couple micheladas, take pictures of the local “wildlife”
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10:30-11:30 am: Retreat to hostel for some shade from the sun. Wonder aloud why there aren’t more hammocks in the USA.
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12:00-1:00 pm: Belly rumbling, head back to the beach for lunch. Order shrimp kabobs and jerk chicken from Terry’s grill (he sets up on the beach at lunch time). While I wait, chat with Terry about life on the island. Feed scraps to Terry’s dog, Mama. 20130423-135129.jpg20130423-135150.jpg

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1:00 -3:00 pm: Stroll around the island, stopping for some delicious coconut ice cream. Chat with the owner of an animal shelter and meet a 2 week old kitten he recently rescued. Melt. This time not from the sun.

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3:00 Walk down to “the split” to dip my toes in the warm crystal clear water. Spot a baby sting ray!

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3:30 pm: Hammock time, again.
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5:00 pm Head to an outdoor dinner at Wish Willy’s. To fend off the bugs, Willy puts burning ashes in a coconut husk. It works well until we feel like we are in a house fire and he moves it further away. Have a large delicious (and cheap) meal and, against my better judgement, accept his offer for an enormous heaping of seconds.

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7:00 pm: Roll back to the hostel to relax before bed.

9:30 pm: Drift off to sleep early in preparation for an early snorkeling trip in the morning. Have sweet dreams of home.

Days 6-10: Wonderful Caye Caulker

Copy of Caye Caulker, Belize

Arriving in Caye Caulker after a crazy few days in San Pedro felt like entering a spiritual retreat. As soon as you step off the water taxi, you can feel the sleepy, laid back, friendly vibe of Caye Caulker.

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Our hostel was a very short walk from the water taxi on an island where pretty much every thing is a very short walk from everything else. Caye Caulker is about 5 miles long. Cars are very uncommon as the sandy streets are mostly navigated by golf cart, or bike or on foot. There isn’t much of a sand beach but the clear azure water is teeming with sea life, making it excellent for snorkeling, kayaking and fishing.

The locals are friendly and live by the Caye Caulker motto “go slow”. If they see you walking like a New Yorker, you’ll be sure to get a reminder and a wink.

“Go slow, mon”

And for 4 days that is exactly what we did. We ate succulent jerk chicken, fresh off the outdoor grill, 45 mintues after ordering. We strolled around the shops on the beach, slowly sifting through the gorgeous multi colored fabrics that I’ve fallen in love with. We lounged on water front hammocks with worn novels, drifting off to sleep as the salty breeze provided respite from the hot midday sun. Caye Caulker was in a word: relaxing.

We could all learn from Caye Caulker.

Relax
Stop rushing
Take time to appreciate the little moments in life
Go slow

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Days 3-6: the Cabin in the Woods

I’m not going to give a day by day of San Pedro because, well, those stories are for private time. Let’s just say there were times when San Pedro felt like we were in a (less murderous, more absurd) sequel to the Cabin in the Woods. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie (spoiler alert!!), in it a group of friends goes to a cabin in the woods and end up in a variety of horrifying situations that it turns out are controlled by a team of people who are trying to kill them off one by one. In San Pedro we got into a series of ridiculous situations but always remarkably came out unscathed (and laughing hysterically). A filtered glimpse of things that happened in good old San P:

-Fell through a broken board walk at night bruising my shin, knees and hand and losing a shoe in a crocodile lagoon. Miraculously nothing was broken (or eaten). I even got the shoe back. Later iced my wounds with a stranger’s frozen sausage links.
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-Lost my daypack containing my phrase book, other miscellaneous items, both credit cards and passport. Got everything back minutes later (except the phrase book (???)).
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-Survived a night in which the hostel bar bell was rung a minimum of 11 times.
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-Hung out with a deaf/blind cat named Sheila that was shaved like a lion. Same night, same bar.
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-Interrogated a series of locals in an attempt to solve a local crime.

-Contributed important evidence to local policia in regards to my (I mean “their”) investigation.

-Will likely be called to testify in a Belizean court of law.

Let’s just say San Pedro was crazy fun (emphasis on crazy) but after 3 nights we were ready for the next island.


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On to Caye Caulker!

Pedro’s Inn, San Pedro

Ahh San Pedro, San Pedro. How do I describe my stay in San Pedro on a blog that I will one day tell my mother about?

Let’s start with the hostel. While researching online forums about the two islands (San Pedro and Caye Caulker), most backpackers had turned their nose up at San Pedro and recommended going straight to Caye Caulker. They described San P as touristy, commercialized and well, the worst. Because of this, I had planned to spend the whole beach week in Caye Caulker. But I am a big believer in trying out a little bit of everything so at the last minute I decided to book 4 nights in San Pedro and 4 nights in Caye Caulker.

The hostel I booked in San Pedro is called Pedro’s Inn. I booked a private room since it’s about the same price as a dorm if you have two travelers. It was an extremely basic room: literally two twin beds and a ceiling fan. No closet, no safe. There weren’t even any electrical outlets (that I could find). But for 16 dollars (each) per night it was clean and comfortable. When it comes to cheap hostels, often that is asking a lot.

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The bathroom was obviously shared with the rest of the floor but was clean and usually empty. In addition the hostel had two pools, a bar, and lots of young travelers scattered around.

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Also, at the bar, they served pizza.

Sigh.

Pizza is one of my favorite things in the world. Not just favorite foods, favorite things. I’m getting ahead of myself.

When we checked in, I immediately loved the owner, Peter. He is a friendly English ex-pat and the first thing he told us was that he would buy us shots of jäger at the hostel bar if he was able to drink that night (too hungover).

Obviously we had to check out this bar. One thing we learned shortly after perching on a stool is that there is a bell in the bar and if someone rings the bell they have to buy free shots of jäger for everyone.

One thing we learned shortly after ordering and receiving a pizza is that they are DELICIOUS.

So let’s summarize; cheap hostel plus cheap bar plus a free shot bell plus fellow fun young travelers. Let’s just say, not much time was spent at the beach.

I will give my impression of San Pedro in a later post but if you’re already planning to go there and looking for a hostel that is affordable, clean and fun, Pedro’s is a good choice. (It’s also dead quiet after midnight and has a night security guard). There is also Pedro’s Inn across the street if you’re looking for some amenities.
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If you make it there, order the BBQ chicken pizza (add jalapeños) and wait for that bell to ring. You won’t wait long.

Day 3: Mexico to Belize part 2

The bus ride from Tulum, MX to Chetumal, MX took about 3 hours. I slept for half the journey. The bus had the A/C on blast and was freezing cold. I had anticipated this and had layered up but it was still uncomfortable. I treasured the 6 minutes that it would turn off (yes I timed it) after 20-30minutes of cold blasts.

Once we arrived at the bus station in Chetumal, we purchased bus tickets then went to grab lunch at an eatery a block away. Travel tip: don’t get a cab from one of the terminal taxis that hound you when you walk outside (30-40 pesos). Walk up the road and hail a cab for more than half the price (around 15 pesos). Also, if you speak Spanish (or pretend- thank you phrase book) you will have more negotiating power.

The eatery was swarming with flies but the food was decent. I forgot that “huevos” meant eggs so half of my meal went uneaten. (I had a bad eggs-perience in Thailand). Meals finished, we cabbed to the port and went through immigration. I tried to fight the 26 dollar(!) exit fee (you should only have to pay if you are there more than a few days) but my Spanish was not good enough to comprehend his responses. Fine, sir! Total ripoff.

We waited two loooong hours for the ferry to Belize during which we mostly stared at the ocean then played a rousing but short lived game of “Would you Rather”

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Finally it was time to head to the port. After 20 minutes of waiting, a military truck showed up loaded with Mexican soldiers carrying enormous guns.
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I knew to expect this from my research but it was still disconcerting. After another 20 minutes of sitting around waiting they brought out the “drug sniffing dog”. The dog legitimately looked like a stray they had just picked up off the street. It was a mutt, a bit scrawny and more interested in giving kisses than putting in a day’s work (I totally understand, pup). It would casually sniff a few bags then walk over to a passenger with it’s pleading eyes asking to be petted (or possibly fed). Its handler had to keep pulling it back to focus on the sniffing task at hand. It was pretty adorable.

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We finally boarded the speed boat, anticipating a relaxing 45 minute minute ferry ride to our destination of Ambergris Caye (also known as San Pedro). In the words of the internet: LOL. The 2 hour ride felt like a slow motion bus crash. It alternated between flying through the air and slamming down HARD against the ocean. I popped a Dramamine 5 minutes into the ride which resulted in me falling asleep sitting up then jolting back awake every few minutes then falling back to sleep and repeat for two hours.
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When we finally made it to the next port I was pretty sure I was going to need to see a chiropractor to get my entire body realigned.

Getting through customs was pretty quick and painless. I don’t think they even glanced at my bag. Finally we were able to walk out onto Belizean soil and get a glimpse of San Pedro.

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That island had no idea what we had in store for it over the next 4 days

And vice versa.

Day 3: Mexico to Belize Part One

My soul was weary, but now it’s replenished”

As our bus drove out of Tulum and through the Mexican countryside, Lauren Hill singing soulfully in my ear buds, I teared up a little. Tears of happiness over the fact that after months of planning and research and waiting, this trip had finally come to fruition. It just felt right.

For two years in Baltimore I worked in the poorest neighborhoods and saw and heard some ugly things. My job was to work with the downtrodden and cast aside. It was draining to say the least. Now, as I rode out of Mexico, everywhere I looked was beautiful. Even the slums were brightly colored, the skies above them magnificent. I am fully aware that there are multiple political, economic, and social issues in Mexico. But as I rode out of there, I felt renewed.

My soul was weary, but now it’s replenished.
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