Thursday, March 30, 2006
A patchwork of farmer’s fields perched on steeply-sloped hills with women dressed in brightly-coloured skirts carrying baskets of market produce balanced on their heads - The Guatemalan Highlands turned out to be exactly what I had always envisioned. The trouble with touring the Guatemalan Highlands, however, is that once the novelty of seeing indigenous Guatemalans wearing their indigenous weaves and living their difficult indigenous lives has worn off, there isn’t really much to do.
Looking for something out of the ordinary and off the beaten track, we decided to board a bus in search of the rogue saint Maximon, also known as San Simon. We traveled through Guatemala and the rest of Central America on old school busses, retired from their North American routes and painted wild colours both inside and out. These chicken busses, so named for livestock they often carry, or perhaps for the game they play on blind corners of steep hillside roads, can carry up to seven times the allowable amount of passengers as suggested by the Blue Bird Bus Co. This adds up to as many as six adults across a row of cheap vinyl seats and a few children at their feet and as many people standing in the aisle as space will permit. There is no better way to get a feel for a place than to travel with the locals.
Maximon is worshiped in several small towns across the Western Highlands, so we picked Zunil as a likely place to find his statue. After asking around the town, we found Maximon in a tiny and dark front room of a house down a narrow laneway. Although venerated by practicing Catholics, his image is not allowed in the Catholic Church - evidently the Vatican has never fully recognized this Guatemalan saint of gamblers and drunkards.
In the small candlelit room we paid our entry fee (a dollar extra if you want to take a photo), and watched people leave cigarettes and rum for the bully saint – an idol to whom you make offerings so as to be left out of harm's way rather than asking for any favours. And there was San Simon, a mannequin wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses with a bandanna covering his face, awaiting our offerings of money, smokes or spirits. We offered nothing, which may be why a week later we found ourselves in a small boat, alone on a river at night being circled by sharks and crocodiles.
With only a week left in our travels, we flew from Guatemala back down to Costa Rica. We made our way to the Pacific coast and set out on a hike through Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula near the border of Panama. After a hot 10 hour hike through seaside rainforest over sandy soils, we arrived at the ranger station where we spent the night.
At breakfast the next day, we were let us in on a secret – the rangers have a little boat they are happy to loan out. And off we went with our paddles in hand to find the boat at the end of the path by the river. Shore birds and butterflies fluttered around us while schools of fish were swimming by – occasionally a bull shark would do the rounds reminding us to stay out of the water. We didn’t see any crocodiles, but we knew they were there. Within no time a family of squirrel monkeys came down to the water's edge for a half-hour photo session. While watching the monkeys we became more aware that the sharks had their eyes on us.
One of the scariest things I have ever done is sing karaoke at my friend Olenka’s stag and doe. I didn’t really sing as much as I did the back up ‘la-la-la-ing’ with Jennie and Dinah while Greg belted out the Crocodile Rock. Now the absolute scariest thing I have ever done is to get back in the ranger’s boat for a night paddle in crocodile-infested waters.
My heart skipped a beat with every fish that jumped. Only a few meters down the river bank from where we pushed off we caught a pair of beady-red crocodile eyes with our flashlight – if we hadn’t been before, at least now we were a safe enough distance away. Kieran paddled on and I combed the surface of the water and the river banks for signs of life. The fish kept jumping, my heart started thumping harder and finally, lightening started to flash overhead. I told Kieran it was time to turn back and reluctantly (for him the adventure was only just beginning) we did.
Slowly we turned the boat around, and I shone my light ahead.
“Kieran, do you see that?” I said. I could barely breathe.
“OH-Yeah!” he said.
“It’s coming right at us…”
“Uh, ok, I want to go now. So.”
And for a few terrifying seconds the beady-red eyes got close enough that you could make out its long rigid body – only a meter and half from our boat before SWOSH! It disappeared under the water.
“OK LET’S GO.” My fear was turning to panic.
“Hold on a minute, don’t want to make any sudden moves...”
“OK, but can we go now?”
“OK, but just wait a minute.”
Paddling back to the shore, I kept the light on the water ahead. I realized we were being circled again, this time by sharks. As I drew deep breaths, I rationalized that we were in no immediate danger from the sharks so long as the crocodile didn’t decide to capsize our little boat.
The thing is that we lived to tell the story. We lived long enough to hike 11 hours the next day and long enough to do some incredible SCUBA diving a couple of days later in Drake Bay. We survived the peninsula and made our way back to San Jose and survived the journey home to our respective countries where we find ourselves today, both unemployed and homeless on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And as experience has shown, we’ll survive that too – there just won’t be as many colourful photos to document the experience.
Monday, March 13, 2006
From the briefing we were hooked – vivid descriptions of snorkelling on the World's second largest barrier reef, sunbathing and swimming along the way with reassurances that the food would be ample if not the highlight of the trip. Three days aboard a sailboat and camping out on desert islands under the stars. There was something for everyone. For a group of 15 passengers, everyone seemed easygoing (READ: No one seemed particularly annoying) so it was looking like smooth sailing and good times ahead.
We set sail from Caye Caulker with a crew of three – Ramsay taking on the role of captain for most of the day, Esteban some of the time with Bobby mostly attending to the dishes. Our first impressions of the crew were this: Ramsay – the responsible one, Esteban – maybe a bit of a kid, and Bobby – WOW! Do you think he got that buff in prison? Yep.
The boat had character – everything from the hull to the deck from bow to stern was solid wood and painted white while the paintjob around the outside reflected its name, the Ragga King. There was just enough room for all 18 full sized adults to find sun or shade at any time of day, as long as the wind didn’t change direction in a hurry sending the bamboo boom into the back of anyone’s head. Is that duct tape holding the mast together? Oh yeah.
With the sails soaring high and the line trawling behind the boat, we made our way to the first snorkeling stop along a shallow reef pulling in at least two big fish – a barracuda and a red snapper… Buff Bobby grinning ear to ear like a child holding his catch – is he just a little simple? Maybe.
Caribbean culture, sunny days on sandy cays, maybe a manatee – but for us the snorkeling was the highlight, full stop. Shallow, well protected reefs full of colourful coral and sea critters – much of the same life as we saw in Utila but add many reef sharks as well as the animal most recently voted “Coolest Fish in the Entire Ocean”: the EAGLE RAY.
With two snorkeling stops already, an ample lunch and more than enough sun, we arrived at Rendezvous Caye to set up camp for the night.
Drinking rum around a blazing fire as befits a sailor, feasting on the catch of the day, we watched as the crew gathered up whatever combustible materials they could find - and is that a large plastic rope Buff Bobby is burning on the bonfire? I´m afraid so.
I was reluctant to get in the water on the second day since several people reported seeing a large shark fin, and not of the friendly nurse or reef shark kind. Buff Bobby, looking a little too stoked – veins popping from his neck in an unnatural way, kinda crazed look in his eyes – grabbed for the spear gun and charged for the water. Strangely, it wasn’t the shark that scared me. And while the shark-spotting didn’t turn up much, Bobby did manage to tear up a tonne of coral with his bare hand to lay his spear into a sizable lobster. And just to make sure it was dead, he speared it again. I’m sorry, but isn’t lobster out of season? Yes. It is.
And Esteban - why do you have a toy gun on the boat? It is a toy, isn’t it? Pardon me, you’ve been shot HOW MANY TIMES?
Tobacco Caye wasn’t as Robinson Crusoefied as Rendezvous Caye – there was a bar, a few holiday cabins and a shower where you could wash 2 days of sunscreen and salt off your skin. Snorkeling straight from the shore there was plenty to see and plenty of the Coolest Fish in the Entire Ocean were swimming right around the dock in waters so clear you could photograph them from the surface.
The crew was getting tired on the third day at sea, with the exception of Bobby who seemed unusually energetic and increasingly touchy-feely. The boat was getting smaller, the sun a little hotter, the food portions and quality less than adequate. Bobby had been pouring himself glass after glass of rum from breakfast onward and to my horror, Esteban and Ramsay took a siesta after lunch leaving Drunk Bobby at the helm, grinning ear to ear for no apparent reason. Calculating whether I could swim to the shoreline in the distance, I decided the risk was negligible, but the whole thing screamed negligence.
Once we were safely on the shores of Placencia, we parted ways with the crew feeling that it was three days well spent but that three days was enough. I never got much chance to say my proper good-byes to the other passengers on the boat. Bobby was making round after round hugging the ladies and I’d had my turn three times. A quick getaway was necessary.
It was good luck that we ran into a few of our fellow passengers the next morning at breakfast so we could exchange email addresses and stories.
So did you really see Bobby smoking crack yesterday morning before we left? Yes, oh yes we did.
After the first photo incident, I might have thought of double checking your CD before leaving the camera shop and not deleting your memory card until you were 100% certain. But recently a young and perhaps inexperienced photo clerk managed to re-format our memory card erasing some 200 photos in the process. Naturally, he denied everything.
Lesson learned – in the future, if I'm going to be away for any length of time without my trusy lap top, I'll carry my USB cable and camera software. Internet café’s are plentiful and as the old adage goes: ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself!’
And lucky for us we have been taking many thousands of photos along the way, so not all is lost. And when I say 'WE', I really mean 'KIERAN'. Much like the underwater photos, I can't take any credit for the photos you see on this blog - ok, except the ones that are actually OF Kieran... he's good, but not that good. And yes, he did get close enough to that crocodile and her babies to take that photo. NUTS!
Here's more good stuff from Kieran:
Saturday, March 04, 2006
To round off our explorations of the ancient Mayan empire, we decided to undertake a jungle trek to El Mirador, buried deep beneath the thick lowland jungles of the Peten department of Guatemala. This seemed like a logical choice for our final Mayan hurrah, since it contains the oldest Mayan ruin ever unearthed, the highest Mayan pyramid ever built and the largest of all the cities – the Big Smoke of the Mayan Empire.
Enshrouded in mystery, much of El Mirador lies under forest cover while researchers, scientists and conservationists work hard to protect it from slash and burn agriculture and logging companies. Last spring, Mel Gibson visited the site in support of the campaign to conserve the surrounding forest for his upcoming film project, Apocalypto. He flew to El Mirador in a helicopter. We hiked 148 km with a pack mule.
(Google Earth... from approx. - 17º15’15.97” N, 90º00.23.07” W, to approx. 17º47’44.03” N, 90º04.24.05” W)
Last spring, Kieran and I decided to go on a road trip in southern Mexico. We flew from Havana to Cancun and rented a car, driving from Quintana Roo, through Campeche to Chiapas and back in two weeks covering a total of 3,400 km and visiting the Mayan sites of Calakmul, Yaxchilan, Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Each of these well-excavated sites was interesting in its own way - some for the detail in their restoration and some for their natural setting.
What we know about the Mayans is based on educated guesses – it’s hard to put a whole civilization into context, especially given that they lived more than a thousand years ago. What we know for sure is that Mayans really liked to build things out of rocks – the higher the better. They had no metal and there is no record that they had invented the wheel, so they must have been pretty strong. The fact that they were an advanced society yet a Stone Age people makes their work that much more impressive.
We know that Mayans played a ball game. Whether it was a spectator sport or a ritual no one can be sure, but it ultimately ended in somebody dying, most likely the loser. The Mayan people were big on animal symbols – jaguars and serpents were clearly worshiped while turkeys and deer were offered as sacrifices. As were people.
While visiting these well-restored ruins in Mexico and more recently in Tikal, Guatemala, we wondered how anyone would be able to accurately pinpoint where to look in the thick of the jungle. After all, a ruin is nothing more than a mound of rocks buried and broken up by tree roots until it is discovered by either tomb raiders – tunnelled into and plundered, or archaeologists – unearthed and restored.
On the first day of our El Mirador jungle trek, we stopped at a hill no more than eight feet high. Oswaldo, a former chiclero turned trekking guide, told us it was a Mayan ruin. As he made his way around the back of the hill to an opening that had been carved out, he told us that looters had discovered it - we could go inside if we wanted to but all the treasures were already long gone.
Although unimpressive as ruins go, it was the first time I was able to see the signs. The surrounding area was flat, broken by two irregular bumps in the earth. The rocks protruding from the ground had squared-off edges and were white rather than the earthy brown colour typical to the region. As we walked on, we realized that we were trampling over vast expanses of buried city. Every odd-shaped hill we walked up was yet another temple, monument or acropolis buried under a mess of dirt, trees, shrubs and vines.
A family of curious spider monkeys greeted us on arrival at the first camp. They circled the site shaking branches until sundown, as entertained by us as we were by them.
The next day around lunch-time we arrived at El Mirador, welcomed by the three lonely guards who live at the site for several weeks at a time. They were happy to have company and set about showing us a collection of ancient Mayan pottery that they themselves had acquired.
Had we never seen Mayan ruins, it would have been largely unimpressive. Even at the base of the largest pyramid, it is hard to see that there is anything there. The natural setting alone would have made the trip worthwhile, but we would have had little frame of reference for understanding the magnitude of what was beneath our feet. The El Tigre complex, the largest pyramid ever built, is supposed to have looked like this :
Here’s how it appears today:
As we watched the sun set from the top of El Tigre, the calls of the toucans and parrots in the trees below mingled with the sound of howler monkeys in the distance. Low-lying jungle stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with large mounds, which, like El Tigre, are the many other pyramids waiting to be uncovered. All of this is evidence that an advanced society just disappeared – absorbed back into the jungle by some tragic flaw in the way they lived – most likely an unsustainable use of resources. Some researchers believe they poisoned their water supply and others believe they used up too many of the forest’s timber. Perhaps both simultaneously? It is ironic that before we ever know for sure, our own advanced society may have met the same fate.
We spent a day and a half exploring the ruins, chasing monkeys, watching birds and looking for the elusive jaguar, which remained elusive.
When we set out to hike back on the fourth day of our five day expedition, we got it in our heads that we should walk the entire 74 km in one day, partly to get to Belize a bit faster, but mostly because we needed a proper shower. And so we hiked through jungle in the hot sun and then the rain for eleven and a half hours, stopping once for a snack and once for a sandwich, alternating between riding that pack mule and walking on foot.
We’ve decided that we are all ruined out, so we are headed for the sunny coast and barrier reef of Belize, hoping to sail from Caye Caulker to Placencia. Time is running out so we have to move fast...
Friday, February 24, 2006
My first experience as an open water diver, in Fiji, wasn´t much different from those formative years in school. I signed up to do a dive course with a man for whom taking a student seemed to be a bit of a burden. He was intent on getting me through the course as fast as he possibly could. When an instructor is telling you to speed up through your training while simultaneously explaining you that if you ascend from a dive too quickly your lungs might explode, it is only natural to feel a little bit of apprehension. Then loading up with 20 lbs of scuba gear and an extra 12lbs to make sure you sink to the bottom, it feels like you are being lead into uncertain death by a man who takes it all just a little too casually.
I could do all of the things I was asked to do, like take off my mask and regulator and put them back on underwater. It could be done, but not comfortably since I felt like I was doing it in a big rush and at a great inconvenience to the man showing me how. To top off the experience, I managed to swim through a pod of sea lice, a group of nasty little jellyfish to which most people react slightly, but to which I am more sensitive than most.
So there I was, feeling a little shell shoked and covered head-to-toe in hives, ready to throw in the neoprene and take up a sport on solid ground.
Seven years passed before I decided to try again.
We arrived on Utila with a plan to stay for a few days and dive. After diving uncertified a few times with renegade Cuban divemasters, Kieran decided it was time to do the PADI open water course. We investigated every dive centre, explaining that Kieran was keen and I was a little nervous (secretly terrified, even). We settled in at the Bay Island College of Divers where Kieran did his course and I signed up to do the SCUBA-tune up. All it took was a man named Robert - patient instructor with a good understanding of the process and an ability to communicate and I was there. And it helped that with his mask on and his regualter in, his lips puckered up to look just like Val Kilmer. Adorable! Feeling comfortable.
On the first dive, Kieran took to the water like a fish and I didn´t die of a massive embolism. All good. I did however encounter those pesky little sea lice again, only this time I was wearing a full wetsuit with booties so they only got my neck, ankles and hands. Still feeling determined, I got back in the water again. It only got better from there.
Everyday we saw something more - sea turtles and sea horses, eels and sharks. We saw fish hiding in brightly coloured corals and things that looked like rocks but then got up and swam away. Somedays the sea was so choppy that my stomach churned while I was on the boat, but each dive brought more experiences and I dont feel seasick under water.
The enthusiasm on the island is infectious, everyone all excited about whatever they saw on their last dive and looking forward to the next. And while I take absolutely no credit for any of these photos, these are amongst the many amazing fish and colourful coral we saw. (Click here for more photos by Adam Laverty) Adam´s ability to ID fish based on our vague descriptions of colour and size made each dive that much more meaningful. Until now, my fish-spotting skills have been much the same as my bird watching - big fish, colourful fish, stripy fish, disguiso fish...
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Kieran is now certified as an advanced diver and I have the confidence to breathe underwater for as long as there is air in my tank. More importantly, I love it and I am excited to do it again. We arrived on Utila for four days, and ended up spending two weeks. We had contemplated staying and becoming dive masters and instructors and living there for the rest of our lives. The Bay Islanders are great fun - loud and colourful Caribbean people, but the town´s two streets are narrow and there aren´t enough horizons to keep us entertained for long enough.
We´ve made our way to Guatemala, all the way up the Rio Dulce. We are heading north tomorrow to a town close to Tikal with the intention of setting out on a five-day hike to explore Mayan ruins in remote places. While I have overcome my fears with diving, I still have several creepy crawlies and vicious predators to face in the jungle.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Still, it's a world apart from anywhere else I’ve visited, so the awkward journey in pickup trucks, motor boats and dugout canoes was well worth our while. It was a lot easier to get around than we expected and in most areas we were either well received or laughed at. I’m fine with either reaction, so long as no one throws anything.
The Mosquito people (not to be confused with the nasty blood sucking insect by the same name) are really good fun. No one is really sure if the region and its people were named for the presence of mosquitoes (the insect) or the musket toting reputation they earned (Musket / Musquito) defending British interests in the region from the Spanish in the 18th century. I would argue for the latter since a spring day in the Canadian bush is far worse for the pesky bugs than the Mosquito Coast.
Life isn’t easy, but they seem to get by on what they’ve got. There are at least a few ways to make a decent living in the region. Given the lack of roads, with good motor boat you can provide collective transportation through an elaborate system of rivers and man-made waterways carved out of the mangrove swamps. But gas is expensive so you are still reliant on the ability of others to make a good living. There’s lumber to extract from the jungle and plenty of cash crops to be churned out.
Given the region’s large number of unmonitored airstrips and its isolation from the rest of Central America, drug running from the Caribbean coast through to the Pan-American Highway seems to be a popular option for some. One of the tools of the trade is a good gun – thus opening up an opportunity for local gun dealers – anything from pistols to AK-47s. We were told that the Honduran military does their best to sweep in and disarm the good people of La Mosquitia, but to no avail. They are fiercely independent and determined if nothing else.
A slightly safer way to make a living for you and your family on the Mosquito coast is to get your name into all of the tourist guidebooks as the ‘Go-to Guy’ for transportation to the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve. This is how we learned about Eddie Bodden. Sadly, he was murdered 6 months ago. I suspect Eddie Bodden’s death is no more a mystery than your average gangster hit – no disrespect to his family. There is a lot of money to be made in tourism and he had the monopoly on the Biosphere for transportation and accommodation. The family has worked hard to keep up the business so they can maintain the life they are used to. It costs a lot of money to pay for the fuel to run the electricity generator to power the Direct TV satellite. But once you've got it, it`s hard to give up.
Our boat men turned out to be Eddie Bodden’s brother Sergio, the local dentist who sported a very telling toothless smile. He was traveling upriver to Las Marias anyway for his regularly scheduled tooth extractions. Evidently it was the only dental procedure he knew (40 teeth in total this trip). Along with him was his son, the local Moravian pastor. They skillfully navigated us up a river congested with forest debris left over from the many hurricanes that have flooded the region – some 13 hurricanes and storms in total last season but they were only flooded out of their homes by five or six.
From Las Marias we traveled further up river in a Pipante, which is a dugout canoe maneuvered by three men - one at the back to paddle and steer, and two in the front to muscle us up through the rapids with really long sticks. We sat in padded high-backed seats marveling at their strength and skill. From there we hiked through primary rainforest and visited petroglyphs along the waterway. It`s a lovely way to spend a day.
We were set to hike the next day, but we only got as far as the ravine at the edge of town before my feet flew out from underneath me causing my chin to make noisy contact with a rock. It would have required stitches except we were as far from any hospital in Central America as you could get. My fist aid kit had mostly everything I needed including a triple antibiotic cream and some big ol’ chin patches. As luck would have it, the other two foreigners we met along the way were an RN and a paramedic who patched me up as best as they could without a needle and thread. My jaw was still giving me grief a few days later, so when we finally arrived on the Island of Utila I decided I had better see the doctor.
When Dr. John came out to greet me after 4 hours waiting on his porch, he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that clashed with his loud flowery shorts. His long, scraggly, wiry hair was held back with a knit Rasta cap and his coke bottle lenses in severe black plastic frames added to his eccentricity. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. The best part of the visit was when he called me into his office and lit up a smoke while he wrote out a referral. If it were 20 years earlier, I would have suspected that Dr. John was a draft dodger, but I suppose he just likes being a little strange. It works for him. (Click here for pictures of Dr. John… really, you have to!!)
Dr John took a good look at my chin and decided that I ought to have had stitches and that I can’t (*shouldn’t*) SCUBA dive for at least a week to ten days. He also decided that I may have fractured my jaw and may never eat chewy food again. NOT POSSIBLE!!! So he sent me off to La Ceiba, and hour and a half back to the mainland on a ferry that can only be described as a puke fest, to get an x-ray of my jaw. Although Dr John might be radical in his appearance, he airs very much on the side of caution with his medical practice.
The X-ray was all clear so I signed up to do my diver tune-up course on Monday morning and my first dive sometime there after. I guess that’s only 4 days but I can’t wait a whole week –too much to see…