13 October 2017

Pimp my (bus) ride!

Refinishing seat frames in a bus workshop,
Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala
Those of you reading this who are from the US...have you every wondered what happened to your old yellow school bus, the one that took you faithfully to & from school each day? Probably not. Well me neither. But when I started traveling in Belize, I realized that those yellow school buses became retired expats themselves, turning into public long distance buses in Central America (& elsewhere). I have ridden many a "Blue Bird" bus in Belize around that country, reminiscing as I did about time in my youth spent in such buses (and the dramas of who sits with whom & where--in front with the nerds or in the back with the smokers; jumping out the bus's back door during fire drills; and what about when you miss that dang bus?!).
Anything can be "Blue Bird" 
when you have this plate!

Here in Guatemala, I got to tour a "factory" near Antigua that converts your childhood school bus into a suh-weet looking set of wheels, ready to take you from one town to another. The tour was offered by the non-profit Niños de Guatemala, and according to my tour guide, there are 32 such workshops in Ciudad Vieja (4 miles from Antigua) alone, a town of some 28,000 people.

How does this all happen? Your boring yellow bus, having reached ~10 years of age, is purchased at an auction in the US, after which it is driven down to Guatemala, likely loaded with spare bus pieces & parts. Per my tour guide & a documentary on these buses, the drive through Mexico for these folks can be a bit dodgy, as robberies are frequent and bribes often requested.

Once in Guatemala, the bus goes to a "factory" to be converted for local use. The workers then do their magic, for example:

*Ditching the snow tires & doing whatever mechanical work may need to be done.

This baby's almost ready to roll
*Adding features: racks to the top of the bus for luggage storage, ladders to the back of the bus in order to reach this rooftop storage, racks inside the bus for smaller bags, maybe a rail to the bus ceiling for standing passengers to hold on to, another rail along the entry door for the "ayudante" (bus assistant) to hold on to (because most of his trip is spent standing in the open door--yes, while moving also)

*Imprinting the "Blue Bird" logo on whatever pieces they may have added or redone (seat backs, entry panels, etc.); doesn't matter that this work has nothing to do with the real "Blue Bird" company!

Finished product hard at work!

*Doing the most awesomest paint job ever so that anyone who sees that bus will want to jump on it right away, no matter where it's headed; preferred decorations seem to include bright colors and religious icons.

These "pimped up" buses at peak times will carry passengers packed three to a seat and standing in the aisles, not to mention of course the occasional live chicken. They will go speeds, distances, and over terrain never dreamed of by your school district for another 10-15 years or so at least!

Hold on tight please buddy

03 October 2017

Back to Belize

Getting our coffee & chocolate fix at San Pedro's
 Chocolate Boutique!
It was great being back in Belize for a month plus -- this time I was cat sitting on Ambergris Caye for the "aloof-but-happy-to-see-me-if-I-gave-her-a-treat" Stella, who lived right in San Pedro town! (Of course while there I was also there keeping up on all things happening with the condos I work with in Belize, as there's always something new.) Highlights of this island visit!

1. Catching up with island friends, who, among other things, kept me caffeinated & chocolate-filled.

2. September is the month of holidays in Belize; my in-town digs offered me a front row seat to the parades: bring on your Belizean blue, white & red (please note the correct order of saying the flag's colors)!
3. Facebook connected me with Mary, from San Diego via Wisconsin, who coincidentally has ties to Cartagena AND was on Ambergris Caye at the same time I was! We first met face-to-face to walk the shelter dogs and after one short walk, a deluge started, so we spent the next 45 minutes getting to know each other while staying dry in one of the kennels (the pup we were in there with there loved the attention of course)--a meeting to be remembered! Also did a day trip to neighboring Caye Caulker, where we visited the seahorse ranch (although the creatures proved elusive) and got to feed tarpon; see video! (they have no teeth, but they do swallow their prey hole....bwahahaha.)

Heading down to Xibalba...
likely in a manner the Maya did not!

4. Before leaving Belize & on my way to Guatemala, I spent a night in the mainland at the Mariposa Jungle Lodge. What a treat! Descended into the Maya underworld in a tour of the nearby Bols Cave Museum. It is filled with Maya relics and bones from 950 B.C. We heard stories of blood letting and sacrifices made there in Xibalba, the underworld….and then turned off all flashlights to experience utter and complete darkness....creepy!!!

Next up: Guatemala!
What are the stories behind these ~3000 year old Maya bones?
(More Bols Cave photos here.)

03 July 2017

My canine carry-on, Coco from Cartagena -- how did that happen?

Meeting Coco at the Cartagena airport
I started volunteering at an animal shelter when I spent a few months in Belize in 2014. At that time Judy & Beth, whom I met when they picked me up at the water taxi dock, brought me to my house-sit, and then said to me on leaving, "We'll pick you up at 8 am tomorrow; we're going to the shelter to walk dogs." Um, ok. I like dogs. I like to walk. I like to volunteer. Works for me!

Since then, every visit to Ambergris Caye has had me at Saga Humane Society getting weekly quality time walking some of the most lovable & adorable pooches around. And my consciousness was raised so that I also became aware of Cartagena Paws, an organization in another country I visit often, which helps the all too numerous street animals in that city.

Both Belize's Saga Humane Society and Colombia's Cartagena Paws work not only to help abandoned animals, but they of course want these dogs & cats to have forever homes too. Many times those willing & best able to adopt pets live in the US or Canada, and so the critters lucky enough to be adopted often need help getting to their new homes. This is where travelers like me (& you?) come in handy!

Packing for a Purpose with donations!!
When flying from the US to Belize or Colombia, I usually bring an extra suitcase filled with Pack For A Purpose donations for the local community. That leaves me "light handed" on my return to the US, and so it was a no brainer to volunteer to be a pet escort. Cartagena Paws happened to have the perfect fit for me this trip -- my first opportunity to serve -- as puppy Coco needed to get to his new mom in Maryland at the end of June.

Coco, his four brothers & their mom had been found in an abandoned lot, obviously neglected and in need of help. They all received medical care, vaccinations, etc, and ultimately found families in the US; there were a number of different flight volunteers in June flying them to California, New York, Massachusetts, & of course Maryland.

I met Coco & his foster dad (& foster terrier brother!) at the airport the day before our flight, so customs paperwork could be processed. I volunteered to foster Coco for his last night in Colombia so we could bond a bit before our long travel day -- what a cutie! After getting a huge number of licks from him at the airport, Coco followed my every step in the apartment. I would be at the kitchen sink and he would lie at my feet; if I went the two steps from there to the refrigerator, he got up to follow me; of course if I was sitting anywhere, he needed to be curled up next to me. Adorable!

On travel day, Coco happily got in to his pet carrier, where he would be spending most of the next 11 hours (poor guy!). He was a jewel -- slept nearly the whole time and there was never a peep out of him. We cleared security twice and I carried him with me through the scanner while his carrier went through the X-ray machine; Coco didn't even try to wiggle out of my arms. Because of a customs delay on arrival to Fort Lauderdale, we had a very tight connection and so the poor pup didn't get a potty break but still no complaints (or "accidents") at all!

When we got to Baltimore, my first concern (after meeting his new mom!) was to get Coco outside & out of the carrier so he could do his business; it had been a long day! We went out to the sidewalk and opened the carrier; Coco walked out, looked around, but was seemingly so overwhelmed by it all, that he walked right back in to the familiar & curled up in his carrier. Poor guy!

Coco with his new brother
Coco is now in a loving home in Maryland with two boxer siblings, having the time of his life. A happy ending for Coco!

Now I know that there are some who are probably wondering about a couple of things, as I have heard & had these questions myself.

Aren't there dogs & cats in the US who need to be adopted? Why are we flying in animals from other countries as pets? I volunteer with an SPCA in Maryland, which is always looking for families to adopt their animals, so it is ironic that I have brought a puppy from Colombia who was adopted by a family in Maryland. But I have also heard from friends that it can be much more challenging to adopt a pet in the US. Adopting overseas could be a faster & easier process for some, funnily enough. Others may feel more inspired to help a dog or cat from another country; isn't it great those animals too will also have loving homes? I thought there were good balanced arguments for both sides about this here. One of the 'against' arguments calls for "dealing with the causes [of stray animals], such as neutering, animal control, and owner education." Definitely in agreement and Saga in Belize, and other groups also, do this as well. [2019 note: Cartagena Paws has also started a spay/neuter program.]

Shouldn't we be helping people rather than animals? Shouldn't we be helping both? And in some ways by helping animals, you're helping people too. Belize's Saga Humane Society, for example, has an education program visiting schools to teach kids how animals should be treated & cared for (animal abuse is not uncommon, unfortunately). And by teaching these kids compassion for animals, they learn more about compassion in general, with the goal of having a more compassionate society overall. [2019 note: Cartagena Paws is fundraising towards an education program also.]

Other thoughts/comments welcome!

Interested in being a flight volunteer for a pet? You can read more about it here. There is a list of organizations around the world looking for flight volunteers here, although it is a limited list; there are definitely more such groups out there, including:

*South America: several in this post
*Belize: Saga in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye
*Mexico: Tails of Mexico and The Ranch in the Lake Chapala area
*Costa Rica
*Turks & Caicos
*Thailand: Soi Dog Foundation; there are two Facebook groups (one here and another here) for those flying from Thailand to anywhere in the world, although mainly to Europe and the US/Canada.
General flight volunteer needs in this Facebook group.
*Shenzhen, China: Karuna Rescue (needs flight volunteers out of Hong Kong)

Learn more about Cartagena Paws in this Colombia Calling podcast!

15 June 2017

A Delicious Night in a Colombian Jail

I have always been a bit curious about Cartagena’s women’s prison, located within the Old City walls just a half a block from the trendy Plaza San Diego (and a block from where I lived while teaching here). I have walked by the jail countless times, often seeing small signs of the women’s lives through the bars on the second floor above — sheets tied up to block the strong Caribbean sun, clothes hanging to dry, a hand of someone presumably gazing out at the sky above. The depressing sign above the entry states visitors are allowed Saturdays & Sundays, entering between 9 & noon and leaving by 3 pm. All a stark contrast to the charming architecture & Caribbean colors of most of the rest of the UNESCO world heritage site.

Reports state that the prison was built for 50 but now houses 180+ and is to be moved from its highly sought after (& high priced) walled city location; it is steps from the luxury Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara and numerous $$$$ restaurants.

"I believe in second chances"
Despite this potential imminent move of the Carcel de Mujeres de San Diego, Restaurante Interno opened its doors late last year and not only adds to the culinary offerings of the Old City, but is a prison rehabilitation program as well. It provides practical training for inmates so they have marketable skills upon release, plus funds other prison projects improving conditions & prospects for the inmates.

I was finally able to check out the restaurant last night & it was a delicious, while at times humbling, experience! The food was good and the setting pretty, despite the seemingly (although given the circumstances understandably) unwelcoming nature of the restaurant entrance -- a locked metal door which is opened and closed by a guard. The servers wear t-shirts that say "I believe in second chances" and plated food is passed to them from the kitchen through slots in a gate.

Top chefs donated recipes and helped train the women to prepare and cook them. A prison garden and bakery supply the restaurant, as well as provide additional training opportunities for the inmates. Those who work there earn (limited) funds to send home to families. Segundas oportunidades is written on the entry wall to the restaurant and referenced on the t-shirt backs of restaurant staff; "second chances" are being offered for these women.

For more information on this Cartagena restaurant, see the brief story on their site and also an AP article here. A quick search found similar type eateries in Italy & Britain too. Should you find yourself in any of these areas, give the restaurants a try! And maybe there are more? Please comment if you find one!

P.S. For those who are curious as to what the inside of the Cartagena women's prison looks like, see photos I found on Facebook here. 2018 update: video footage from the restaurant & inside the prison can be seen here.

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....!