Day 49: Belize to Guatemala by flying boat

Copy of Dublin to Galway by train (2)

After a month-and-a-half in Belize, it was time to move on. As much as I was enjoying Placencia, Belize only grants 30 day visas for visitors and mine was about to expire. Plus, I was eager to check out Guatemala.

On the morning of Day 49, we headed to the boat dock in Placencia, next to Barefoot Bar and purchased tickets ($10 BZ). The 10:00 “Hokey Pokey” Boat arrived on schedule and we all piled on. After a 15 minute boat ride on calm waters we arrived in Independence, Belize. A bunch of us then hopped in a mini-van cab and headed to the bus station. [Traveler tip: You don’t need to do this, the bus stops at the boat dock]

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The public bus arrived only slightly behind schedule, around 11:00 (scheduled for 10:45). The bus was packed and only a couple people got off. Yet, no one seemed all that concerned about fitting in this influx of 8-10 additional passengers. And their bags. Somehow we all fit. Of course, that required most of the new passengers to stand in the aisle, trying not to topple over into someone’s lap as the bus peeled around winding roads. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience. Then, 20 minutes into the ride/balance exercise, the ticket taker announced that there was a police check-point coming up and everyone needed to get in a seat. At the behest of the ticket taker, the two adults seated in the two-seater next to me begrudgingly slid over approximately one inch to accommodate me.

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When I was in 8th grade, my mom and I moved and I had to start taking the bus to school. One winter morning, I sat in an aisle seat in the front of the bus. The “cool kids” all sat at the back of the bus. My backpack was full of books that day, so bulky that it protruded out into the aisle. I don’t remember what I held in my lap but it prevented me from taking off my heavy back pack. I can still feel the weight of that backpack when I recall what happened next. The bus made a sharp right turn that I was not prepared for. Panic overtook me as I began tipping over into the aisle. Time slowed to a crawl as I tried in vain to subvert gravity. Slowly but surely I landed, like an overturned turtle, in the aisle in full view of the entire bus. For a 13 year old, “humiliated” is an understatement. I disliked school buses before then. For a while after that, riding on them filled me with dread.
That memory came rushing back as I perched on a tiny piece of pleather cushion, backpack in my lap, most of my body leaning into the aisle, my thighs burning with effort to keep me from flying forward as the bus lurched around curves. Thankfully, a seat opened after nearly 45 minutes where I spent the remainder of the two hour bus ride resting my aching lower half.

We arrived in Punta Gorda, Belize around 1:00 pm and purchased tickets for the ferry to Livingston through Memo’s Boat Service. [Traveler tip: Make sure you have enough cash  for the boat ticket ($25 US, I think) AND pricey exit fee ($39 US). Both fees can be paid at the immigration office].

IMG_7870IMG_7874The boat arrived around 3:00. No drug sniffing dogs this time. Once we were all boarded, one of the workers handed me and the girl sitting next to me a large tarp to place over us. I didn’t think it was really necessary, I’m not worried about my hair getting wet (advantage: Braids). But they were pretty insistent. Strangely, no one else was offered a tarp. (I’m going to assume it’s because both of us were black and he had been taking notes during Good Hair)

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As we set off towards Livingston it soon became clear why the tarp had been provided. It had stormed the day before and the sea was dark and rough. Large waves crashed against the boat, drenching us as we sped through the Amatique bay. The boat bounced wildly against the ocean, often going airborne before crashing down again. The looks on me and my fellow passengers faces went from bemused to slightly concerned to fear stricken

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During the hour long boat ride, there were several times in which I began wondering how my death would be reported in the newspaper. “Local hero flung from boat during 3 month heroic journey through Central America. Dies a hero”. Just guessing at headlines. But accurate guesses aside, it was a very scary ride. We were all relieved to hoist our soaking wet bodies onto the dock in Livingston.

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It was a day of very uncomfortable rides but we made it to Guatemala safe and mostly sound.

 

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Traveling while judgey

On Wednesday, standing in line to board my plane to Atlanta, I overheard a conversation amongst the group behind me in line. They had been vacationing in Playa Del Carmen and were talking about their plans upon returning home (Alabama). A tall older man with a distinct southern drawl declared, “First thing I’m doing when I get home is getting a real hamburger. I had one at the hotel and it was horrible. I told ’em, go to Walmart get a Boca Burger, at least it’s halfway close!”

And they all chuckled.

First his statement made me sad. “This is Mexico!” the fat kid (name’s Carla) trapped inside me yipped, “there is so much amazing food here. I haven’t eaten this well in 3 months!” Cartoon tacos danced around happily in my brain.

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But immediately after the dancing finished, my mind was awash with judgement.

This is EXACTLY what the world thinks of Americans, I said silently to Carla (who was at that point hungrily grabbing at the cartoon tacos). Thick, southern accents! Traveling to the most commercialized foreign regions! Complaining about the HOTEL HAMBURGERS (“At least it wasn’t hot dogs”, Carla said meekly)

Sigh.

Lounging on a sparkling beach in Playa del Carmen, surrounded by a slew of other tourists, getting catered to by Mexicans who speak perfect English. Shopping for slightly less expensive American and European brands at shiny stores on pristine cobble stone sidewalks. Eating at restaurants with elaborate websites and 14 dollar margaritas. It isn’t exactly my idea of an exotic vacation.

But then. Then I thought: hey Judge Judy, vacation is a personal decision! What makes your vacation better than their vacation? As you may have picked up on above, I disliked Playa del Carmen. But, people have the vacation of their lives there. For some it’s their first time on a plane (as another person on the flight mentioned). Or first time interacting with people from another culture. Leaving ones comfort zone is never a bad thing. Just because it’s not the vacation that I would want for myself, doesn’t make the experience any less valuable.

I’m sure there are many seasoned travelers who would judge my vacation. I wasn’t bunking in war zones or remote villages, I chose shuttles over chicken buses, some of my hotels even had cable television.

So, fellow travelers: I will not judge your travel choices. We’re all just trying to see parts of this huge beautiful globe we’re sharing.

But the beaded cornrows? The ones you got done on the beach?

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Those I will absolutely, wholeheartedly judge you for. And so will your co-workers.

81 Day Hotel Round-up

I’m back in the states now (!) and have A LOT of posting to do. So, without delay…

I’m a bit of an apartment nomad. I’ve lived in 10 homes in 4 (going on 5) cities in the last 6 years. In fact, 2011 was the first time I’ve ever renewed a lease. My proclivity for moving continued in Central America. On the plane I counted how many hotels I stayed in during the trip. Twenty-one. 21 hotels in 81 days. That may not seem like that many but keep in mind I stayed in a volunteer house in Belize for 31 of those days. I’m just always looking to make improvements: cities, apartments, jobs…hotel rooms. So, I may as well put all that hopping to good use and give a brief review of each of them.

In order of stay:

  • Cabanas My Tulum (Tulum, MX): 4/5 Affordable, clean, good-sized cabanas situated on a gorgeous stretch of beach in Tulum. Best hotel I found for the money on the beach.

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  • Pedro’s Inn (Ambergris Caye, BZ): 3.5/5 Fun hostel with cheap, very basic but clean rooms, 2 pools, a restaurant/bar with delicious pizza, and an owner with a fondness for Jagermeister. It’s a bit of a walk into town through a poorly lit area.
  • ImageYuma’s House (Caye Caulker, BZ): 4.5/5 Colorful, cozy, laid back hostel with affordable dorms, private rooms and an ocean view. Restaurants and bars nearby (keep in mind the island is only 5-6 miles long)
  • ImageWindschief (Hopkins, BZ) 4.5/5: Big oceanfront cabanas with refrigerator and coffee maker.  Great view from the balconies. Owners are friendly and helpful and the beachside bar has great food.

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  • Deb and Dave’s Last Resort (Placencia, BZ) 3/5: Cheap, pretty basic hostel (with some decorative touches) a couple minutes walk from the beach. Rooms get a little hot at night.

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  • Westwind (Placencia, BZ): 3/5 Beachfront hotel with small rooms. Tied up guard dogs can get a bit overprotective (growled/lunged at me a  couple times before realizing I was a guest- apparently one was in heat). Great view from the shaded hammocks out front. Free kayak usage for guests. You can find better for less in Placencia.

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  • Roach Motel (Placencia, BZ) 1/5: I can’t remember the name of this hotel but there was a giant cockroach (that I named Greg) and we left immediately the next day. Actually had decent amenities but EW.
  • Julia’s Cabanas (Placencia, BZ) 4/5: The beachfront cabana has a balcony and an AMAZING view. The cabana was beginning to show it’s age but was clean and comfortable. And oh man, that view.

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  • Casa Rosada (Livingston, GT): 4/5 There is a reason this hotel is one of the most recommended in Livingston. Affordable. well designed private rooms (with shared baths that could be nicer) and seriously beautiful grounds. The restaurant serves great food and management is eager to help with booking trips to your next destination.

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  • Utopia Eco Hotel (Semuc Champey, GT): 2.5/5. This place is new and still working out the kinks. Very limited vegetarian meal options each day, open air dorms that prevent late night socializing in the common area and limited staff. Also, lots of bugs in my cabin ( to be fair it is in the jungle). But, the views are fantastic, and I met so many great people there. It has a lot of potential.

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  • La Sin Ventura (Antigua, GT): 3.5/5 Nicely decorated, relatively affordable (but slightly pricey for Guatemala) hotel in a central location a block from the square. Very clean, comfortable rooms but no wi-fi on the 3rd floor. Friendly staff and great views from the roof.

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  • Posada de los Volcanoes (Panajachel, GT): 4/5 Very clean, thoughtfully designed hotel. Good sized rooms with cable tv and slight lake view from balcony (top floor only). The free breakfast is very tasty. Still, you can find MUCH cheaper hotels on the lake.

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  • Hotel Aaculax (San Marcos la Laguna, GT) 5/5 Absolutely gorgeous but relaxed hotel with lush, fragrant grounds. You can tell thought was put into every single detail. Even if you’re on a budget, it’s worth staying one night here. Treat yo self.

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  • Hotel Pinnochio (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 3.5/5 Clean private room with lake view, hammock, “hot” shower and cable tv for 13 bucks? Not too shabby. Still, you can find better for cheaper in San Pedro.

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  • Casa Rolando (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 2/5 Great lake view and that’s where the merits end. Rooms are fine but the manager is creepy and the bathrooms have a “window” (read: hole in wall) that opens out to the balcony for everyone to hear. Wi-fi was down the entire two days.

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  • Hotel Fe (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 3.5/5 Shabby but cute rooms, free delicious breakfast, restaurant/bar across the street, cable tv (by request) and lake views. Owner can be a bit…surly but it’s a fun place to stay.

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  • Hotel Paraiso (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 2/5 Big rooms, mine had no view, decent wi-fi signal. You can stay in much nicer places in San P.
  • Casa Lola (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 4.5/5 Clean, attractive hotel with large rooms with cable tv, heated showers and reliable wi-fi. Views are great from the balcony. My favorite hotel in San Pedro.
  • Puerta Vieja (San Cristobal de las Casas, MX): 4.5/5 Very clean (and new) trendily designed hostel with really comfortable beds. Large patio with fire pit out back. Owner is fun and encourages socializing. Great central location.
  • Hostel 3B (Playa Del Carmen, MX): 4/5 After walking around in the sweltering heat with heavy bags for (what felt like) hours looking at a bunch of dingy hostels, this place was like a mirage. Very cute, very clean, trendy hostel with thoughtful decorating touches. Beds are comfortable and the area is quiet at night. No wifi on the second floor (or at least not in the 12 bed female dorm). No alcohol allowed.
  • Hotel Acuario (Playa Del Carmen, MX) 4.5/5 Great hotel for the price. Large rooms with A/C, cable tv, kitchen amenities including refrigerator, and balcony (or patio). Small but nice clean pool. Friendly owners. And there is a turtle pond! Hotel is a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of touristy 5th ave.

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Today

Today is a big day for me, numerically speaking.

One day until we leave magical Lake Atitlan, now one of my favorite places in the world, after two unplanned weeks spent here.

One week until we fly back to the states after 81 days in Belize/Guatemala/Mexico

One month until I leave my 20s behind.

I have been neglecting this blog for reasons that don’t matter but today I was struck by the fact that so many goodbyes are impending in the next days, weeks and months.

Goodbye to wonderful new friends, goodbye to a region of the world that now feels like home, goodbye to a decade of way more ups than downs.

Yet I’m not (too) sad for these goodbyes. I’ve learned so much from all of them, and feel blessed to count them as part of my life journey. I’m also so excited to start the next chapter of my life- moving to a new state, beginning my 30s, starting grad school, reuniting with old friends, making new ones.

So I will spend the next day cherishing these new friends, the next week cherishing this region and the next month cherishing being able to say I’m in my 20’s.

Just kidding, I’ll be “26” until further notice.

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Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

My travel survival guide: Conquering Montezuma

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a doctor. I have no medical qualifications whatsoever aside from my one-time ability to administer cough medicine to a screeching foster cat.

With that said, let’s talk about Montezuma’s revenge.

No? You’d rather not. Sorry this is happening.

Montezuma’s revenge, also known as Traveler’s Diarrhea, is not necessarily something that people want to talk about. For some reason, as a culture, discussing anything poop related makes many of us uncomfortable. This is especially true in regards to women.

I once dated a guy who was adamant about the fact that his ex girlfriend did not poop. She had told him this after all and he’d never seen her do it. I inquired if she was human or perhaps our first evidence of alien beings. I asked if she consumed food or subsisted solely on glitter and rainbows. Exasperated by my line of questioning, he ventered a guess. “Some girls just don’t…go”.

Our “relationship” ended shortly thereafter. I’d just had a big burrito, after all, and didn’t want to disappoint him.

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Let me just set the record straight. Barring any medical crisis or temporary blocking, we all poop. In fact whenever I’m feeling intimidated by someone, I remember this fact. It’s like picturing your audience naked-works wonders.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to Montezuma’s Revenge. According to Wikipedia, the trusted fact source of lazy bloggers, it is the most common ailment for travelers. Accordingly, an estimated 10 million people—20% to 50% of international travelers—develop it annually. That number actually sounds low. In my travels, I have not met one person who denied experiencing it. In fact, when traveling, rather than it being a taboo conversation, it can be an ice breaker. You talk about the country where you first got it, suggest remedies to the ailing person, laugh good-naturedly as they eye your meal with a mixture of sadness and repugnance.

I got it in Thailand. I’d been a vegetarian in the states but when I got to Thailand, within minutes I was eating balls of unidentified meat on sticks purchased from questionably hygienic street vendors with reckless abandon. It’s a wonder it only lasted a couple days.

I got it in Belize, too. But this time I had a secret weapon.

When preparing for the trip I remembered with zero fondness, the days of Montezuma that culminated in a filthy Bangkok train station bathroom in which toilets were slightly elevated holes on the ground.

Not wanting to relive that, I did some research on remedies. I read about all the old standards: pepto, immodium, cipro (which I had a preemptive Rx for, but the potential side effects never seemed worth it for me). Then I read about Oil of Oregano (OOO).

According to the article, OOO was anti-biotic, anti-fungal, anti-septic, anti-everything bad ever. The article was a bit questionable considering the URL was something along the lines of http://www.healthsupplements.realscience.buynow.com. Don’t click that. But the more I researched, visions of a dimly lit train station flashing in my mind, the more I became convinced that I needed to at least try it out.

The price tag was a bit less convincing: about 45 bucks for a bottle of gel caps at the health food store. But the employee helping me enthused about them so passionately and seemed so genuine that I decided to put the cash. By that I mean my mother paid for them.

When I got to Caye Caulker, Belize and that familiar rumbling and discomfort started, I popped a couple peptos, drank a lot of water and hoped for the best. But when it persisted, I finally popped an oil of oregano pill (along with a probiotic as recommended by the health food store guy). At that point I was still very skeptical.

But after an hour or so I felt completely better. My stomach was calm and undisturbed. I could eat without being within sprinting distance of a bathroom. I was amazed but did not rule out the possibility of a placebo effect.

But it happened again in San Ignacio: a day of food seeming to bypass my stomach completely. I popped a gel cap and within an hour Montezuma was gone.

In Placencia, I started to feel a cold come on. Almost as a joke, I took an OOO. It had been my miracle cure after all. The next day my symptoms had vanished. A fellow traveler, who had been experiencing the same early symptoms, was sick for days. (she declined the OOO-most people do. “Who is that creepy girl trying to push pizza pills?” I imagine them whispering)

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I did some more research and apparently it can be used for colds as well.

Now, I don’t want to sound like some kind of witch doctor (although I’ve read that they have their merit). OOO has worked wonders for me on this trip but that doesn’t mean it would work for you. Nor does it mean that it wasn’t just a coincidence that my ailments disappeared after taking some. That’s quite possible. But I know my body and I’m a believer.

Now we are in Guatemala and this morning Montezuma has returned with a vengeance (ok it’s really not that bad).

Little does she know, I’m ready for her.

Serious Person Disclaimer: I only take it if symptoms lasts more than a day and the water/pepto combo don’t work. Also, diarrhea can be life threatening so please call a doctor if it becomes severe.

Days 41-49: Placencia, BZ

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For the last few days I have been thinking about how to describe on paper our week in Placencia. It was such a magical time that I’ve struggled to find the words that will do it justice. So, I will take the easy way out and compare it to a movie.

If our week in Placencia was a movie, it would be Eat, Pray, Love. More accurately, Eat, Play, Love.

Several components came together to create this magnificent week.

1) Dorothy. I was so excited and happy to retrieve her from the airport. Dorothy and I are similar in many ways. We are optimists, we love to analyze people and experiences, we crave adventure and we believe in living life in such a way that it is an accumulation of good stories. These shared qualities make us great travel partners.
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2) Placencia. If I were to design a beach town it would look a lot like Placencia. It is a beautiful place. Grainy off-white sand and azure blue ocean stretches for miles. It doesn’t hold a candle to Tulum but it’s by far the nicest beach in Belize.
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Side note: Unfortunately that week, Placencia had a bit of a sea grass problem.
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It collected in large unattractive clumps on the sand. It also made swimming near the shore a bit…uncomfortable. I’d be merrily floating in the sea, wishing life could always be so perfect, when a blade of sea grass would brush my leg. Then another would cling to my arm. And suddenly I’d be splashing around in frantic circles trying to escape the swarm of sea grass surrounding me.

But Placencia is more than just the beach, although it is the underlying theme of everything. The village is small and very walkable.
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There are two popular bars: The Tipsy Tuna and Barefoot Bar both with affordable fare, friendly service and laid back atmosphere. I was partial to the Tipsy Tuna, which was beachfront, and we quickly became regulars.
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There are also other restaurants, hotels and shops along the main drag and dotting the sidewalk by the beach. It’s a beach town that fits anyone’s needs, from budget to high end.

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3) Locals: The friendliness of the locals rivaled Caye Caulker. Everyone seems to know everyone else and after a couple days there we were greeted by name (mostly by the men. At times the locals seemed to be composed entirely of men aged 18-35). And surprisingly, for the most part we didn’t experience the cat calling, lewd comments or general creepiness that I have encountered in other parts of Belize. It was a breath of fresh salty air.
On our first night out, at the Tipsy Tuna, we met some local tour guides. They became (respectfully) enamored with Dorothy and I and throughout the week took us on personalized kayak and snorkeling tours free of charge. It was low season after all so they had some time on their hands.

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Later in the week we met a Belizean Anerican ex-pat who owns a small restaurant on the beach. We all quickly bonded and we spent the remainder of our evenings hanging out at the restaurant with other locals, drinking rum and local wine, swinging on hammocks, cracking jokes, playing local card games and just reveling in the experience.

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One afternoon he and some friends invited us to go spear fishing. We kayaked out to some coral reef and watched them dive down with their spear guns over and over. Every so often when one would emerge, he would proudly hoist a new catch into the kayak.

(Pictures to come)

Hours later, our skin sun baked and salty, we heaved our kayaks back onto shore marveling wide-eyed about what an incredible day it had been. That night, sitting on the beach at our new friend’s restaurant, he presented us with a platter of succulent buttery fish, the day’s bounty, fresh off his grill. We ate ravenously, licking our fingers to ensure nothing went to waste. It was the best fish I’ve ever had.

Belly full and sipping on my third glasse of tree grape wine, I looked around. At the moonlit beach, at my new friends, at my old friend, and beamed with happiness. This cultivation of people and experiences is what brings me joy. It’s why I move every couple years and it’s why I love to travel.

Placencia was a vacation from a vacation. A literal washing off of the dirt and dust of San Ignacio as well as a metaphorical cleansing of some of the grime that had accumulated in my soul over the years.

We ate the best, freshest food
We played in the sea to our hearts content.
And we fell in love. With ourselves, with new friends and with a village called Placencia
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