30 September 2015

Need your luggage fixed? Recommendation for you here

Ah, I’m back “home” in Cartagena for a few weeks. It’s been fun reacquainting myself with the maze of Old City streets, drinking tropical fruit drinks, eating coconut rice, catching up with people, watching the Caribbean fisherman, and sweating in relishing the heat….

But more on all of that in a later post. What I may be most thrilled about is that I brought here with me two suitcases which had been deemed throwaways and they are now back in full working order!!

Excuse the “country dropping”, but while traveling in Europe last year, I used my sturdy Rick Steves roll aboard suitcase. In Spain, the rubber tread came off of one of the wheels. “Ay perdone señora, but I am sorry, that cannot be fixed” I was told at repair shops I visited. No biggie; I dealt with the crookedly rolling bag. 

In Italy, while running from one train to catch another, one of the suitcase “feet” fell off. “Mi dispiace, signora, no repair possible.” Now I had a bag that stood even more lopsided—if I forgot to stand it up by a wall, the bag was on the ground. Could be dangerous should an unsuspecting toddler walk by; I need to do something.

In the U.S., a call to the Rick Steves store said replacement wheels and feet were not available, but they’d be happy to sell me a new bag. “But it’s still functional!”, as a London friend of mine said. She was right….why are we often told that the best way to "fix" a broken item is to replace it? I knew just where it could be fixed: there are guys in Cartagena who have a street workshop right in front of the ATM I always used.

Fast forward to now and my spur of the moment trip to Colombia. Not only am I here to update myself for my vacation rental work, and all the reasons above, but another goal was to get my bag working like new again!! I had brought along my sister’s “unfixable” roll aboard as well. Sure enough, went to my former bank & right in front of that I found Luis & his father, working away. A day later I had two fully functional rolling carry-ons.

So my recommendation to you? Come to Cartagena for sure — it’s a UNESCO world heritage site well worth a visit, easy to get to, & the exchange rate is currently in most tourists' favor. But as a bonus, bring your broken luggage along with you, visit Talabartería Luis & head home with a “new” bag!

Luis's father told me he has been working here for some 40 years!
They fix luggage, briefcases, purses & leather paintings. Located in front of Davivienda bank on Panama St

11 September 2015

Border crossings by land, water & air

Maya temple tops peek out of the jungle
Tikal National Park, Guatemala
When I last left you all, my handful of faithful readers (thank you!! :), I was headed to Guatemala. My California-based friend Sara was meeting me for this trip; she & I have traveled together at various times since the early 80s, and our arrangement for meeting up was just like in the old days: meet at 9:30 am on July 1 at the Benque Viejo bus stop (the end of the line in Belize & just before the Guatemala border). We had no way of contacting each other by phone, text, or email in the 24 hours prior to our arranged meet up time (crazy that something like that sounds almost nerve-wracking these days — 24 hours incommunicado!!). But guess what? Everything went fine!! I got to our meeting spot early, took out a book, didn’t get concerned when 9:30 am came & went, and gave Sara a big hug when she arrived at 10:30. We should all try every once in a while to live as if we can't connect with everyone instantaneously -- make a plan & pull out a book if someone runs late!

Highlights of July travels in Guatemala & Mexico:

*The bus stop where Sara & I met up was a mile or so from the Belize/Guatemala border. As we’d both been on buses for a bit, we decided to walk that mile while catching up. We went through the border formalities and then once across, walked into the Guatemala border town to catch the bus for our next leg. That is, I am pretty sure, the first time I have ever walked from one country to another.

"Rooftop" is not my preferred seat on a van!
*Tikal National Park, Guatemala, a (at one point quite powerful) ancient Maya kingdom from around 2000 BC to 1000 AD. Having been to other Maya ruin sites in the Yucatan and Belize, it’s amazing how different they all are in both architecture & layout. The temples here were higher & narrower than others I’d seen, and had decorative “combs” on the top, plus everything was very spread out in the jungle. We had great howler monkey sightings (& hearings) also — they sound almost lion-like!!

*Our trip from Guatemala across the border to Mexico: we had a 90 mile/4 hour (!!) van trip to La Técnica, a tiny village on the Usumacinta River (which forms the border with Mexico in this area of NW Guatemala). No chickens in the van, but usually there was a passenger or two on the roof; travels like this are everyday for many people in the world—that’s kind of crazy to think about. At the literal end of the road, we took a 3 minute boat trip across the Usumacinta to Mexico; a rare border crossing by water for me! At these types of little-used border crossings you have to consciously make sure to get your appropriate exit & entry stamps as there are no gates or buildings on either side that you are required to go through; here we (read “Sara”, gracias!) made sure we knew where to go to get the appropriate stamps in Guatemala & then Mexico.
Yaxchilán Maya site, on the Usumacinta River, Mexico

*Visiting the Maya ruins of Yaxchilán, Mexico, which involves a ~40 minute boat trip up the jungle river (with sunning crocodiles sighted on the way) and then suddenly coming upon this Maya ruin popping out of the jungle on the riverbank. As a friend said, we felt like Indiana Joans(es :) exploring this site!!

*A day tour to the indigenous villages of San Juan Chamula & Zinacantán in Chiapas,  Mexico, the most interesting aspect for me being learning about the religion of the people of San Juan Chamula, which is a form of Christianity with indigenous practices woven into it. Their church looks typical from the outside, but inside is very different: no pews, pine needles strewn all over the floor, the saints wear mirrors on their chests, and St John the Baptist (patron saint of the town) is front & center at the alter with Jesus off to one side. The church is not used for services, but is used nearly every day by shamans who come with small groups to cure illnesses, solve problems, etc., by lighting candles, chanting, drinking certain drinks (alcoholic & non), & using eggs and chickens (which enter the church alive but do not leave that way). It was fascinating to see some of this going on; you are not allowed to take pictures inside the church but some images can be found online.
Chamula church photo from the web

*Depending on how you determine “largest” (by size of base? height? volume?), Mexico has a couple of the largest pyramids in the world, right up there with Egypt. About 2 hours southeast of Mexico City, we visited Cholula (Puebla), which is the home of one of the largest pyramids ever built, although much of it is still underneath a hillside. Outside of Mexico City is the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, also well-known for its large pyramids. What amazing things to see (& climb!)!

With Norell atop the Temple of the Sun
(Temple of the Moon in the background), Teotihuacan
*Mexico City was a pleasant surprise! I saw no great evidence of the expected bad pollution & crime, beyond what would normally be found in a big city (and there are over 20 million people in “el DF”--Distrito Federal). It was easy to get around in the extensive subway system (a bargain at 5 pesos/trip, currently about 3 US cents). There are a TON of museums in the city & I loved learning more about Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, regional archeology, and Mexican history. It was interesting, for example, in the history museums to read about the “American Invasion of Mexico.” What was that? Oh, in my school history books it was called the Mexican-American War, but yes, it does indeed seem like it was an invasion of another country!

*Visiting the quaint colonial towns of Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Querétero (although if you go, visit them in the reverse order to be progressively more impressed by each one). They each played key roles in the early 1800’s fight for Mexican independence from Spain and are historically interesting as well as beautiful.

With Catharine, NYC friend, in San Miguel de Allende
*Catching up with friends! Not only did I get to spend two weeks traveling with college friend Sara, but in Mexico City I met up with US-Mexican friend Norell, whom I had met in Colombia (via a San Francisco friend, kind of a crazy connection), as well as Spanish Carlos, whom I first met while studying in Madrid in 1982 & who has a been living in Mexico for the past 20 some years. Also coincidentally, Catharine, a friend from my NYC days in the 80s & 90s, was coincidentally in Mexico at the same time and we spent some quality time together in San Miguel. I love being able to meet up with friends in such diverse places!!

After entering Guatemala by foot, then Mexico by boat, I traveled by air to the U.S., where I first spent a great 10 days in Montana with immediate & extended family, catching up with each other & exploring the beauty of Glacier National Park. Then it was on to Maryland, where I have been cat sitting as well as spending time with my mother & catching up with other friends (one grade school friend I hadn’t seen in over 25 years!). Also took a trip to Gettysburg, site of the U.S. Civil War battle. It is mind-numbing to think of the carnage that happened there; even worse that wars still continue and that we don't seem to learn from history. (And interesting to come across names of Federal & Confederate military officers whom I had seen referenced in the Mexican museums when talking about the “American Invasion of Mexico", which had taken place some 15 years prior. At that point, the officers were on the same side; in the Civil War, they were killing each other. Crazy.)

Now on to the next adventure -- on Sunday I fly to Colombia, where I’ll be for a month, mainly reacquainting myself with Cartagena & seeing what’s new in the past nearly 2 years since I left (and working, working, working! :). 

P.S. To see many of the locations mentioned above (& more) noted on Google maps, see the map here.  Make sure the boxes for "Travels with Sara July 1-14" and "Mexico July 14-August 1" are checked (& the other categories unchecked if it makes it easier).
With Madrid friend Carlos & family in Mexico City
Hiking at Upper Grinnell Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
Cat sitting my new BFF Jake!

30 June 2015


Iain & I cooling ourselves off with handmade palm fans at
Marcos Gonzalez Maya Site on Ambergris Caye
How did it take me so long to explore mainland Belize? Oh I know…I got sucked into the “laid back, island time” atmosphere & had a hard time extricating myself from the island of Ambergris Caye during my 3 month stay in San Pedro, Belize last fall. It is indeed tough to leave; I returned to the island this year in early May to pet sit for a month, and almost, *almost*, extended my stay there again. 

The relaxation all starts when you arrive on the island via a Belizean domestic airline puddle jumper flight from the 70s: there is zero, ZERO, luggage screening. Just drop your bag here & get on board, keep your shoes…um flip flops…on & bring all the liquids you want. No body zapper to walk through either, just help yourself to the complimentary coffee & tea. YAY!! 

My “month on the island” highlights: 

*Caught up with island friends as well as friend Iain who came in from the US for a couple of weeks, also to pet sit!

*Did lots of cat cuddling & dog walking (both for my "charges" as well as volunteering again at the shelter)

*Helped out at a new (for me) school in San Pedro, which is now also a Pack for a Purpose partner with the condos I work with on the island (more info here; definitely check out Pack for a Purpose  next time you’re traveling to a developing country!)
The Great Blue Hole

*Took a gorgeous aerial tour out over the Belize Barrier Reef to see the Great Blue Hole, which is basically a cenote (limestone sinkhole) such as the ones we’d seen in the Yucatan mentioned in my previous post, but this one is in the sea. It’s 980 feet (300 m) across & 400 feet (120 m) deep, in the middle of a shallow section of the Belizean Great Barrier Reef system, so you really see the color contrast of the deep hole with the shallow reef; it’s a popular scuba destination made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 70s.

FINALLY, I boated over to Terra Firma in early June to explore more of the country. I’m so glad I did — it’s unBelizeable :) !! Belize is ~185 miles (300 km) long & ~75 miles (120 km) wide, about the size of the US state of Massachusetts. But it’s much less densely populated, with a population of only about 311,000 (vs ~6.7 million in Massachusetts). Think of all that leaves room for: jungle, caves, nature reserves, mountains, Maya ruins, WILDLIFE (jaguars people, jaguars!)....!! However, while the country is relatively small, there are really only four main paved highways & the going is not necessarily speedy. But it’s always interesting!

Hanging with a jaguar at the Cockscomb sanctuary
(Click here for a map noting the four main highways as well as locations mentioned in this post.)

I’ve done most of my travel on the long distance buses, which are retired US school buses painted a variety of colors. Under-bus & overhead luggage racks have been added, although my backpack normally gets shoved behind the last seat of the bus (you know, where the kids who smoked sat). Remember also doing emergency escape drills out the back door of the school bus? That’s now an unofficial passenger rear entry/exit. And those seats that are made with two kids in mind? If the bus is crowded, and we’re near a police checkpoint, sometimes three adults need to squeeze on to those seats or you need to crouch in the aisle so the police don’t see that the bus is overcrowded. Yep, fools them every time.

Another great aspect of local travel is discovering new (to me) transport methods, such as the hand-cranked ferry! I’ve been on three so far as a means to cross a river, twice in a bus & once on foot. Men literally turn a crank all day long to get the ferry moving along a cable which is strung from riverbank to riverbank. (These go along with the hand-cranked Swing Bridge in Belize City, which is manually opened & closed, now only for special occasions. Very few left in the world!) 

Which tortilla was made by the gringa?
Mainland highlights have been:

*Learning more about the Maya, both past & present. In southern Belize especially there are a lot of Maya communities. In one I visited a “Living Maya” home with displays of how the Maya lived, many until just a few decades ago, such as sleeping on beds made of bark, using gourds as water bottles, speaking only their native language (Kek’chi or Mopan in Belize), etc. As part of the visit you help make the lunch that is to be served; needless to say my tortillas did not come out looking anything like the round, flat pancake-like bread it was supposed to be!! (And a couple of local 6 year olds out right laughed at my final products!! :)

*Realizing all the wildlife that’s roaming the country! I visited the Belize Zoo, “the best little zoo in the world”, which houses only native rescue animals. It has toucans, deer, monkeys, crocs, tapir, gibnuts, macaws, jaguars, and more. I spent a day in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary (but of course saw no jaguars, nor expected to—they’re nocturnal & normally steer clear of humans when they can), hiking, “river sliding”, & learning about jungle plants & creatures. (Did you see Mel Gibson’s “Apacolypto” movie? The scene where the woman uses an ant’s jaws as sutures for a cut? Real, & we saw those mighty pincers in action!) Heard the roar of the howler monkeys & saw them literally hanging around as I wandered places.
About to kayak through caves!!!

*There is an amazing number of caves here! These caves are all pretty much now archeological sites as there are numerous Maya artifacts (bones, stone tools, pottery) found in them. For the Maya, the caves were Xibalba: entrances to the underworld & home of some gods. They were used a lot for ceremonial purposes. I did three different guided day trips through caves and would love to do more. 

—First was a kayaking trip through the Nohoch Chen Caves Branch Archaeological Reserve through the dark, with rapids, stalactites, etc. 

One of the waterfalls I rock climbed up
(& then on the return, jumped off!)
—Next was hiking up a river, in a cave, with 6 waterfalls. I had always been a bit wary of rock climbing & had never tried it, but it was baptism by fire here in this adventure! At least we would only be rock climbing on the way up; on the way back down we JUMPED from the top of the falls in to the pools below. (This would never fly in the States—are we too coddled?)

—And finally I toured Actun Tunichil Muknal, popularly known as the ATM cave. This involves swimming, walking through water, squeezing through narrow spaces, a bit of rock climbing, and the like. At the end you are in a huge cavern used by the Maya for human sacrifice, blood letting, & other ceremonies. It was truly awe-inspiring to think what had happened in that cave—especially as you actually see the bones of sacrifice victims, including a complete skeleton. (If interested, there’s a great detailed write up here with photos of one person’s experience on this tour.) 

And lest you think I'm not working -- of course I am! As a result of this trip I'm also able to advise & book folks for accommodations & tours in the jungle in addition to island accommodations. Let me know when you want to come to Belize!

Tomorrow — on to Guatemala!

A farewell view of Belize from the top of El Castillo, Xunantunich 
Maya site near the border with Guatemala

03 May 2015

Getting my flip-flop tan back

What is this white stuff we're on??!
Silly me, I spent the winter in the U.S., mostly in the northeast experiencing more snow & cold than I have in this century! But it was great to spend time with a variety of family & friends, both in the frozen northeast & then later while thawing out in the beautiful California weather. I am especially glad that my flexible lifestyle allowed me to do several days of kid sitting for my cousin in Connecticut & my brother in So Cal — what a fun way to spend quality time with the “cousinettes”, nieces & nephew! (I hope the kids had as much fun as Aunt Barb did! :)

While in California, in addition to catching up with more friends & family, I “lightened my load” — did some serious work on having less stuff. Back in 2011, when I started this 6-12 monthlong venture (ha, that was 48 months ago!!), I was pretty good about getting rid of a lot of things, but I still had a packed 4x6 foot storage unit. That has now been emptied: family heirloom/antiques are now in my brother’s new home; 40 years of photos which were in 8 boxes worth of photo albums have been taken out, photo by photo, organized into boxes, and await scanning (yes, I’ll get to it, probably via a service); Monica got lots of stuff to sell at a garage sale (and I hope some child is now enjoying my vintage 60’s/70’s collection of Barbies--sniff, sniff!). There were various letters, journals, and other memorabilia from high school, college, & my 20s which were fun to read through and then send on to appropriate friends who would appreciate them. Ha ha they get to store my stuff now :).

In the SF Bay Area working my 1st TNT SAG stop -- *great* way to catch up with folks: Melissa, Eileen, Merla, Dennis, Susie, Steve, Steve, Sarah, Kieran, Neil, KSue, Barb, Tom, Shirley, Jon, Anna, Ross, John.....and MORE!

Storage unit emptied = time to use the passport again; it had been gathering dust for 4+ months! First stop: México. My sister Carol-Ann, her 12 year old son Jacob, & I had a great l week exploring the Yucatán Peninsula — colonial cities, Maya ruins, cenotes  (loved the ones with rope swings, even if I was not the most graceful of "Tarzans"!), & up close & personal swimming with sea turtles! The temps were over 100 F (40 C) most of the week, & fortunately we were able to plan a swim somewhere every day.

The heat has thankfully broken & I am now back in Valladolid, a city of some 50,000 in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula. Mostly I’m catching up on work (marketing Colombia & Belize vacation rentals) as well as planning what’s next, but I'm also enjoying wandering around the colonial streets. Flip-flops are once again my constant footwear -- how quickly those tan lines return!

What’s next? At the end of the week I’ll make my way back to La Isla Bonita (aka Ambergris Caye, Belize) with a day or two each in Chetumal, the coastal city on the Mexican side of the border, and Corozal, the city on the Belizean side. Then I am back in San Pedro for a month of pet sitting & laid back island life — friend Iain will meet up with me again there, spending 2 weeks at his own pet sitting gig right down the beach from me. (Iain's met up with me over these nomadic years in Ecuador & Peru as well as now Belize for the 2nd time.) After a bit of island time, I’ll explore mainland Belize, then meet up with friend & previous travel buddy Sara in northern Guatemala and we'll travel a bit in Guatemala & Mexico.

August will find me back in the U.S., meeting up with family in Montana to explore Glacier National Park & more. We’ll see what the future brings after that….I have a few ideas--there's a lot of the world I haven't yet explored & have laptop, will travel! 

I am VERY lucky!!

Jacob, CA & I biking the beach in Tulúm, Mexico!

03 December 2014

Apparently I’m an island girl

Pooch attack!
I arrived at La Isla Bonita, aka Ambergris Caye, Belize, in late August intending to stay 7.5 weeks, the length of my house/cat sitting gig. Despite the gorgeous setting, I honestly thought my first few days there that being there for several weeks would be  l o n g.  After all, this is the city gal slash world traveler, and here I was in a small town with lots of dirt roads on an *island*!!

As mid-October rolled around, I decided the relaxed lifestyle wasn’t so bad after all….I was enjoying the volunteering (mainly tutoring at the schools--liked being back teaching--& walking the shelter dogs—they are not exactly “leash trained”, but it was a great workout & a blast, plus social time with friends at breakfast on the beach afterwards!). I was becoming more & more knowledgeable about Ambergris Caye in order to help the guests I was booking for Sunset Beach Resort. And if I took off to travel, I’d have to *plan* that!

My high school after school group (one camera shy :)
So, when the homeowners returned, I moved into a little apartment in another area of the island for a month. I figured I’d travel the last couple of weeks in November before my return flight to the U.S. and that would be fine. BUT I actually put off my departure from the island TWO more times until it finally happened—I have a flight to catch from Cancun back to the U.S. tomorrow so must get there!! (Although I was asked by an islander: “Couldn’t you change that flight?” :)

What kept me on the island?

*I haven’t worn anything but flip flops & sand shoes for three months — although wearing anything on my feet at all made me “dressed up” in comparison to the locals, who often don’t wear shoes (even the national Minister of Tourism & Culture was barefoot at a presentation on a national holiday). Tonight I will put on sneakers and see how I fare.

*The people are also the nicest around: expats (& there are many of them) and locals alike.
Biking the beach with Iain

*Biking on the beach! I’ve been a cyclist for many years & at first was annoyed at the road conditions (not all are paved and even those that are leave a bit to be desired), but thought it was better than the sandy beach. But then what’s a beach cruiser for if not to roll along and admire the sea with one eye while watching out for driftwood, dogs & kids with the other? So what if it was the rainy season & that often meant mud/sand splattered legs, clothing, & day pack — little badges of honor!! Loved it & may miss that the most.

Bad photo, but croc holding will likely not happen again!

*I learned & got *slightly* less freaked out about critters, and there were many that came closer to me than I might normally have liked: little lizards on the kitchen counter, crab crawling up my screen door, scorpion in my shoe, tarantula by my kitchen table…on the other hand, I willingly went on an educational crocodile boat tour & held a 2 foot croc in my hands! (Plus saw some AMAZING critters while snorkeling the barrier reef, including sea turtles, octopus, rays, not to mention swimming with sharks!)

Mobile produce store!
*At the last place I stayed, despite the muddy road, there were entrepreneurial folks delivering “take out” & offering home grocery service: the golf cart (main form of motorized transport on these small island roads) beeping outside at 8 am had breakfast burritos for you; the one at 11 am was a rolling produce stand—veggies, fruit, fresh herbs, eggs!!; and then at noon you had a hot meal of your choice — would you like fish, chicken or pork today with your rice & beans and salad?

I did make one day trip to the mainland in my three months of island living, the goal being to see the Maya ruin of Lamanai. Incredible structures those guys made! (Of course I watched Mel Gibson’s
Atop a Maya temple!
Apocalypto, based on the Maya just before the Spanish arrived here; ok so not totally accurate but still gives an idea of what things may have been like?) There is still lots more to be seen here about the Maya, so I will be back. (And TONS more to see & learn about in Belize!)

And yes, I am also making strides work-wise! My Ambergris Caye vacation rentals site is long last up & running, yet always a work in progress. I’ve also been able to combine my non-profit background with the accommodation booking work, and have connected both the Belize & Colombia vacation rentals to an organization called Pack for a Purpose (which I wish I had thought to create--what a great idea, combining travel with easily helping the destination community!). Our guests now easily have the opportunity to support a community organization in an impoverished area of Cartagena and the humane society in San Pedro. I am working on more of “meaningful travel” opportunities for the future--there will be more blogging associated with that & the vacation rentals.

With a few of the great people I met here (& dining right on the beach!)
And now, I am off the island and heading back to the U.S. shortly. I’ll be there through the holidays & am not yet sure what 2015 will bring. However, keeping my "homeless" status for now! I’ll be back on La Isla Bonita for more pet sitting next year (house/pet sitting is now obviously fully on my list as a way to travel & live among the locals, so let me know if you’re ever in need of a sitter, no matter where you are! :) & figuring out the rest. Will keep you posted....!!

03 September 2014

International Nomad

Cheering on USA in the World Cup
Did you see this article in the NY Times this past weekend? “Increasingly, Retirees Dump Their Possessions and Hit the Road

While I’m not a retiree (“pre”-tiree perhaps), the article described my life well in many ways!

“international nomad”
“…downsized to the extreme, choosing a life of travel.”
“While many…..ultimately return home or become expatriates, some live like vagabonds.”
Ha! I’m a vagabond? “a person who wanders from place to place without a home or job” No! As one of my fellow travelers said in the article, “Where I am is home.” And I work online--that's a job, right? So I’ll take nomad: “a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.” Currently guilty. 

Where have my wanderings taken me since March?

There were about 40 of us there this year for the annual reunion on the Cape--yay for our hosts, the Tietjes!

With friends + Mom in Seville!
First, to the U.S., for highlights such as seeing my 11 year old nephew in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spending a great week with family at an old Lake Placid camp, and catching up with college friends on the Cape at the Falmouth Road Race.

I spent 3 months in Europe (!!), starting on the Iberian Peninsula for about 5 weeks: touring Portugal & Spain with my mom, catching up with old friends, “interning” with a great vacation rental group in Madrid (if visiting Madrid & need a recommended place to stay, let me know), & trying to relearn how to conjugate  verbs using “vosotros.” :)

Cinque Terre hiking
Can a vagabond go on vacation? If so, I was on vacation in Italy & it was amazing. I did what needed to be done there: held up the Leaning Tower, tasted all the gelati that I could, sipped cappuccino in the mornings, and got sore muscles while hiking and taking in the fabulous Cinque Terre scenery.

My German family picked the right team! :)
In 1978-79, I took a “gap year” (if I can use the modern term!), living with a family and attending high school near Cologne, Germany. That was 35 years ago!! On this trip, I got to spend 2+ fantastic weeks with my extended German family (even stayed in my old room :) plus visit another German family who took me traveling with them during my exchange year. I (unintentionally of course, because what do I know about soccer??!) planned my Germany visit for the start of the World Cup, and so got to watch and cheer along with the future winners!

I have always done a pretty good job of keeping up with people over the years even from a distance, but it’s so much better to be able to visit with them “live.” The time in Europe was great for catching up with so many! Many people I met up with were from my 80s/90s days in New York City, and some I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. A gang of these folks were in Seville, Spain; a couple in Grenoble, France; others in London; and a few of us met up in Rathmullan, Ireland (& how convenient that our Rathmullan hosts recently opened Kinnegar Brewing!). As a bonus, a TNT friend & her husband nicely moved to Oxford just so I could visit them in that beautiful city. :)

It has been a fabulous few months!

1991 NYC Roomies in Donegal
As of last week, I have once again Headed South. I am currently in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye (aka Madonna's “Isla Bonita”), Belize, where I’ll be til mid/late October at least. I am cat sitting (thank you, kitty, for bringing me that *iguana*!!!) and as of next week will be doing some after school tutoring at the local high school. My main goal is to get to know “my” vacation rentals here better and get Vacation-Rentals-Belize.com to have the content that VacationRentalsCartagena.com does! (Note shameless plug for both my sites :) After San Pedro, I’ll travel around Belize a bit and then continue on to the Yucatan. I’ve never actually been to Mexico but it’s about time. 

Biking through London's Olympic Village with Sara
With Deb in Oxford
Stay tuned....!

23 March 2014

Still here...!

Ah, it's March, must be time for my annual blogpost. Yes, I have turned into not much of a blogger, eh?! But I'm still here, in the "south" (ie, Latin America)!

As a brief update:

I spent basically all of 2012 & 2013 living in Cartagena, Colombia, where I taught English at the Centro Colombo Americano. It was the first time I'd ever taught & I really enjoyed it; I'm also glad I had taken the one month intense ESL teaching certificate program (CELTA) in San Francisco before I left there--it helped a lot.

At Ciudad Perdida with niece Carolin & friend Luisa!
I was able to travel quite a bit in Colombia, both with friends (some living in Colombia, some who came to visit) and solo. It's a hugely diverse & fascinating country -- I highly recommend it! Just to mention some highlights: traveling with Spanish friends who live in Colombia (& whom I met during my junior year in Madrid 1981-82); when my "German niece" (from the family I lived with in Germany in 1978-79!) came to visit & we did the 5 day Ciudad Perdida hike with friends; and also when my sister & her 11 year old son visited me in Cartagena--my nephew said it was the best week of his life. I love being an aunt! :)

What 11 year old (& 50 something year olds!) wouldn't love a mud volcano?!
Surprisingly, there was so much to see & do in Colombia I didn't venture much outside of that country, beyond trips back "home" (which could mean a few places) for special events. But I did get to Peru for a couple of weeks--Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are all that they say it is and more--and Ecuador for a month. While in Ecuador last July, I volunteered for two weeks on the coast in the fishing village of Puerto López, helping with a Spanish reading program in elementary schools, an after school kids' club, and teaching English.

When I decided that I was ready to move on from Colombia (after all, my 6 week stay there turned into over 2 years!!), I decided to go back to Puerto López to volunteer again. So here I am for a couple of months! I'll be moving on again soon, but perhaps I'll be back to Ecuador. I haven't yet made it to the Galapagos & that is definitely on my list.

And no, I haven't turned independently wealthy. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to help out with some vacation rental apartments, something I can do totally online. I started doing this with some apartments located in Cartagena's Walled City in 2012, and a few months ago was able to add on renting out vacation condos in Ambergris Caye, Belize. Check out my webpages, always works-in-progress:

The current plan is to travel more while maintaining the "rental business" thanks to the internet. Know anyone planning to visit Colombia or Belize? Please share my links! :)

Will try to make sure it's not another year before I update things again...meanwhile, I'll catch you on the road! (in Latin America? Europe? the U.S.? Who knows!!) Let the adventure continue.....Hasta pronto!

Teaching an English class on the beach with a fresh tropical juice in Puerto López!

Reading with kids in Puerto López!

31 March 2013

You eat ants?

Wow, it's Easter again, or Semana Santa (Holy Week) as they call it in Spanish-speaking countries. Last Semana Santa I traveled to the desert of La Guajira, northeast of Cartagena, and then a bit inland to Mompós, which is famous for it's Holy Week processions. I never thought I'd still be in Colombia a year later, but here I am, still with lots to do and see!
Cabrera town square
It was arranged so that we wouldn't have to teach classes during Semana Santa at the Centro Colombo Americano. While the school was open for a couple of days during the week, we "overtaught" by several minutes each class period in the three weeks coming up to Semana Santa so we could make up time and take the entire week off. Fine by me! I headed out last Saturday night with a friend on a 13 hour overnight bus trip south to Bucaramanga, capital of the Santander department. From there we connected to another bus for a 2.5 hour trip to San Gil, "adventure sports capital" of Colombia, and then continued on to our third bus for an hour's trip to Cabrera, a small colonial pueblo. I had planned a 3-4 day hiking trip from small town to small town outside of San Gil, culminating with a hike down--and then up--the Chicamocha Canyon. 

It not only takes a long time to get anyplace here, it's also hard to get information sometimes. So despite the fact that several guide books/online sites spoke about a 2-4 day hike between these small towns, information on the actual routes and accommodations in each spot was difficult to find -- for example, despite multiple inquiries to various tourist type places, I hadn't been able to find out if the pueblo of Cabrera had any kind of accommodations at all. However, upon hearing that we were looking for a place to stay, our friendly San Gil-to- Cabrera bus driver immediately called someone in the pueblo and had rooms for us booked at the one place in town. I needn't have worried!
Playing tejo

Cabrera was cute! The few kids who were playing around the main square practiced their English with us: "Hello!" "Hi!" "How are you?" We also got to see the only other thing happening in town that night: a "tejo" game, a national sport based on an indigenous game. In a way it's kind of like horseshoes (or for the younger crowd, cornhole) -- you have to throw a little metal disc into a box of clay. In the middle of the box of clay is gunpowder, and if you hit it right you set off a little explosion. Fun!! Add to this the fact that everyone drinks beer while playing, and you have a *really* fun time. Alcohol plus gunpowder--gotta love it!?!?
Camino Real

We started our trek the next day along the Camino Real, a trail originally used by the indigenous Guane people and then later by the Spanish. It was rebuilt in the late 1800s and still pretty well maintained. Our first 30 minutes or so of the trail was pretty much straight up -- great way to start the day! The plan was to hike ~2.5 hours to Barichara, known as "Colombia's prettiest town", but we ran into some locals partway along who gave us a ride half way to Barichara, and who were we to say no?

Melanie & the "chismosera"
Along with these locals, who owned an artisan shop in Barichara, we met another super nice couple who own a family vacation home in the town. They invited us in for a glass of wine and to see their fabulously renovated home, complete with "chismosera" (if I'm remembering the word correctly?? it comes from "gossip"), which is a built in little nook just below and inside the windows that allow you to easily see what's going on in the street--this way you can of course keep up with what your neighbors are up to!!

Unfortunately, not edible
One thing that Barichara is well-known for is their edible ANTS! As Mowgli said, "You eat ants?" Yes, ants: "hormigas culonas" or "big assed ants" (literally). I knew it was something that I *should* try but it wasn't really something that I *wanted* to try. And I was in Barichara for ant season. When it rains, they come out of hiding the next day, and then they're scooped up and toasted; supposedly they taste like popcorn. It rained heavily the night before we hiked to Barichara and stopped that morning...yikes, I was in "luck." But then I learned that they wouldn't emerge until the day following the big rain, and after that they'd need a day to toast them and get them to their delectable goodness. So no, I didn't eat ants; drat (?), a missed opportunity!

Leaving Barichara
After Barichara, we continued the next day to Guane, another town "lost in time", where my travel buddy Melanie decided to hitch a ride to the next destination. We had met up with a local guide there who was the support vehicle for 3 guys who were hiking from Cabrera that morning (where we had started 2 days prior). He offered to take Melanie to Villanueva, our destination that day, and suggested I wait for the 3 guys and hike from Guane to Villanueva with them. Fortunately, I decided not to wait for the 3 guys, thinking they'd likely catch up to me anyway on the trail. Turns out these three guys were part of an adventure racing team doing everything for time, so they would not have wanted me as their hiking companion! But in any event, these guys decided it was too hot & got a ride most of the way to Villanueva--hey, "no wimps", guys!! (After hiking 3 hours from Guane to Villanueva, I still arrived just before the adventure racers anyway!)

Planting seeds by hand
Melanie chose to bus it back to civilization from Villanueva, so I set off shortly after dawn on Wednesday to avoid as much of the heat as possible. This would be my last hiking day and I had 7-8 hours ahead of me, which included a descent into a canyon and then the climb out. Just on the edge of town I ran into a man carrying empty containers and asked him to make sure I was heading out the right way to Jordán, my next destination (a ghost town at the bottom of the Chicamocha Canyon). He said yes and we walked along about 10 minutes together. He heads out this way every morning "for exercise"....and to get water so that he has some at his home. I passed several people out in the fields, some even planting seeds by hand (beans and tobacco are the big crops in this area I was told). The previous day on the trail I had seen someone carrying a case of beer (essentials!!) on his back up the trail from Guane. It is amazing what the day to day is like for many people here, and even living here I am still constantly amazed.

After about an hour I sat down by the side of the road to have a little breakfast. As I was eating, a hiker (obviously a foreigner) walked by & asked if I was going to Jordán. "Yes! We'll see each other in Jordán or on the road!" I finished my breakfast & caught up with the guy a short ways later as he was asking directions of a local. Turns out Bert was a Swiss grad student, and while we started speaking in Spanish, I asked him if he wanted to speak Spanish, English or German. At first when he just heard Spanish or English, he chose Spanish; but then when he heard he had a 3rd choice, he said, "You speak German?" "Yes" "Why??" "Gute Frage!" :) So we spoke German. (While it is hard for me to switch from one language to another, in the past several months I've had more opportunities to speak German while living in Colombia, so it's getting easier. Still there are times when my brain knows it should speak "foreign" but pops out a German word instead of Spanish, or vice versa, and I get some funny looks. But it's getting better....!)

Checking out the descent...
At one point we were advised to get off the "road" (really a jeep track") and take the hiking trail down the canyon. You get directions from the locals which don't always make sense to you (given the language obstacle and unfamiliar territory) until you get to the place they may have described, and then you have to remember what they said about it. For example, one woman we asked was telling us what to do when we got to the "cabrera", which I only realized later meant "goat herd" (not a word I use a lot!), so I didn't even realize what she was talking about until I saw all the goats, and then I had to remember what she said to do once we got to the goats. But always a fun challenge, and from where we found the "cabrera", we had a great view of the canyon--what we were about to go down and the other side that we'd be going up.

The hike down was fine--not a lot of shade but some neat cactii, birds (vultures!) flying around, a snake even. Once at the bottom we passed a "caiman" farm; we chose not to enter but it also brought back up one of those "Oh, I thought someone *did* say something about caimans & I thought maybe I misheard." Nope, alligators. Presumably not native.

Jordán itself really was pretty much of a ghost town. We stopped at the one shop that was open & got cold drinks. Funnily enough, the display case in the shop was full of different kinds of what appeared to be freshly baked breads, rolls, etc, with racks of pans filled with balls of dough that were ready to be baked should the supply need to be replenished. I don't know who bought or ate all this bread, because 90% of the few buildings in town seemed to be abandoned or closed down and we didn't see more than a dozen people wandering around. We were directed to the one place we could get lunch: cross the bridge & stop at the house at the other side, the woman there will make you a meal. And she did.
On the bridge in Jordán

After our meal in Jordán, we headed up the trail that went up the other side of the canyon. We were going to go up some 3000 feet in I don't know how many miles; my written guide said it would be a 2 hour hike if fresh or a 3 hour hike if you'd started from Villanueva that morning (4.5 hiking hours ago). There were lots of switchbacks so in reality it wasn't that bad, but it was a constant ascent and I had my pack filled with my possessions for the week on my back. And I am not in Ironman shape!! I was dragging a bit and stopped after 30 minutes, telling Bert to go on, but he said he'd hang. After another half hour we stopped again & he offered to switch packs. I said ok, picked up his & he asked, "do you notice a difference?" while at the same time he picked up mine and said "oh, yeah, there is a difference." His was filled with helium; mine not quite. He carried mine the rest of the way which was great for me--we did end up reaching the top in 2 hours which I was pretty happy about, mainly because it meant we were DONE! :)

At the top was Los Santos, a small town. I had planned to overnight there and take the bus in to Bucaramanga the next morning. During the week I had heard rumors that some bus stations were closed from Thursday afternoon to Friday afternoon of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to Good Friday) but kind of found that hard to believe since it was also touted as the most popular time to travel--how could they close the bus stations down during that time? In Los Santos I also saw a sign that announced the local buses would be running all day Thursday & Friday so I really thought the intra city buses would be too somehow. Ideally for me would be if I could check out Bucaramanga during the day on Thursday & take an overnight bus that night to Cartagena, arriving "home" on Friday morning.

Getting ready for Easter processions

However, all queries confirmed that there would be no bus back to Cartagena Thursday; the bus station would be closed from mid-day to mid-day Friday. Crazy that after a year and a half here, I was surprised by that. Ah well, just another something learned!! So I decided to explore Bucaramanga, "the city of parks", on Thursday. Well, turns out that because of Maundy Thursday, just about everything was closed in Bucaramanga, museums included. I was able to check out the parks as well as the churches, where everyone was getting their floats of Jesus, Mary, etc, ready for the evening processions--it is pretty incredible what they do. (See my post from Holy Week 2012.)

Girón's main square

The next day, needing to fill time until the first bus left later that evening, I headed to Girón, another picturesque colonial pueblo about 5 miles from Bucaramanga. Turns out a lot of people walk to Girón from Bucaramanga on Good Friday so I joined the crowd--and this crowd also meant that the picturesque little pueblo was jam packed. But it was cute!

Click here for complete photos of the week. 
Click here for a map showing you the different places mentioned in the trip.