You better Belize it!

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve written a blog! Here it is, almost June of 2014, and I’m finished with my first semester of grad school and have been back in the U.S. for about a year and a half! Crazily enough, I was actually a bit nervous about taking my first jaunt abroad since THE jaunt abroad. And with a full-time job and grad school, I really didn’t have much time to plan this one out, so I pretty much just booked a ticket to Belize and did about an hour of research… seriously!

Why Belize, a few people asked me? Well, it was the only country in Central America that I had failed to visit and I had heard from friends that had visited that it was relaxing, beautiful and there were beaches… and that was about enough for me.

After finishing finals on Wednesday and working a full week last week, I hopped on the overnight flight to Belize City on Friday night and got there at about 11:00 am on Saturday. After taking a plethora of overnight flights (and deeming them the best option for optimizing time), I’ve finally realized the power of the sleeping pill. Now, don’t judge me, flying is really the only time I take them (just over the counter gel pills from CVS or Walgreen’s) and they work like a charm, especially alongside a little glass of airport cabernet…

Anyway, I actually slept most of the flight and felt pretty amazing when I got to Belize City. Upon arriving, there was a slightly longer than usual line at customs, but I made it through and hit up the ATM, acquired some Belizean dollars and quickly got in a shared cab with some rowdy older travelers from Denver. We chatted a bit and then I got off at the Caye Caulker water taxi terminal, and after some arguing with the driver about how much I should pay (a solo taxi from Belize City should be $25 USD, but with others you should split that cost at least a bit), I bought my ticket for the water taxi and was waiting in the incredibly humid heat to go to Caye Caulker.

After about a 50 minute ride, we were there! A beautiful little island in off the coast of Belize, in the clear as lenses waters of the Caribbean Sea. I checked into my little hotel and after trying to speak Spanish to the woman who worked there, I realized that pretty much everyone on the island spoke English and Creole (a local dialect) and there wasn’t much Spanish spoken at all! A bit of a bummer as I wanted to use my rusty Spanish a bit more, but it forced me to use less brain power while relaxing, I suppose. After that, I spent the day wandering around the island, had an amazing rum and coke and fish and chips lunch and then laid on the dock and tanned until sunset. I was out there for maybe 2 hours and it made me realize how impatient I’ve become as I was anxiously waiting for the sunset!

That night, I went out to a local restaurant and grabbed a few more drinks and dinner while chatting with a retiree who was on his last night out and gave me some tips about things to potentially see while in Belize. As I was getting tired and the check took a long time to come, I got a bit grumpy and apparently was walking too quickly home, as a local man told me to slow down and he did not seem happy… Important to note that the motto of the island is literally “slow down”, so I was committing a grave mistake by walking hurriedly!

As I laid in bed sweating that night, I decided that the man’s warning was something I needed to hear. I’m constantly on the go and really wanted to take some time to decompress, so I decided it was just what I needed for my little vacation and decided to try my best to relax… something actually quite difficult for me. I had initially planned to visit another region of Belize while there and do some cave tubing, but with only about 4 ½ days, decided to chill and slow down!!!

On Sunday, I slept in, felt great, showered, and decided to look for a new hotel as the one I was currently in was clean and nice enough, but I was sweating profusely every second I was in my room. I found a little place in my guidebook called Popeye’s Beach resort (fancy!) and went crazy and opted for AC and a beach view – hey, you have to treat yourself sometimes (especially in Central America, where it’s cheaper!). While there, I chatted with a nice German man named Richard who is looking to retire in Belize but is working at the hotel in the meantime. I then wandered around the island some more, walked a few miles and found the airstrip where flights come and go from the mainland (mostly bringing tourists as locals opt for the way cheaper water taxis). I saw a beautiful cemetery right on the beach, an iguana hanging out in the shade of a tree and giant lizards running around my feet. I also found the areas of town where the locals actually live, as there is a large part of the island pretty much dedicated to the tourists with restaurants, bars, and a lot of little hotels. I definitely became enchanted with the locals in my time on the little island – an interesting mix of transplants from other countries in Central America, a mix of English, Creole and Spanish, and so many beautiful people in all shades working and enjoying their peaceful little island.

And when I say little… I mean it. Caye Caulker is only about 5 miles by less than 1 mile. On the thinner part, you can literally see one side of the island from the other and the 5 mile stretch includes some swampy land as well (read more about Caye Caulker here)!

The rest of the day Sunday, I spent some time swimming, laying by the water some more, drank beer at a party bar by the “split” and then, of course, continued my daily ritual of watching the sunset. I spent a lot of time laying on a little dock by my hotel where I could actually see schools of fish swimming underneath me in the clear water – amazing! I also met a woman that day named Kyrie from England, also traveling alone so we went to dinner and drinks together, exchanging life and traveling stories. Oh, also important to note, the fish on the island was INCREDIBLE!!! I’m not often a pescatarian but this whole week was a definite exception. That night, Kyrie and I both ordered the Belizean special, which included an amazing piece of fish with fresh salsa, beans, rice and plantains – absolutely amazing!

On Monday, Kyrie and I met up for breakfast and then I went back to my new hotel and cooled off and relaxed in the AC of the hotel room for a bit. I then made my way back down to the split, drank a beer and laid out for a while. Then I headed back to the room again, napped (rough life, huh?!) and then went out to find food. I was feeling quite indecisive so I wandered around for quite a bit until settling on a place with giant frozen drink options. I ordered a banana colada and some food, chatted with an Australian for a bit who was heading to Chetumal, Mexico the next day and then headed back to my room and read and watched TV! I somehow stayed up pretty late and finally fell asleep hearing the loud wind beating against the building.

On Tuesday, I woke up in the morning to loud wind and pouring rain and felt a bit bummed as I had booked a snorkeling adventure for that morning. Honestly though, after my last snorkeling debacle in Honduras (read my blog about it here) after I went out in a stormy sea in a small and very bumpy boat and repeatedly threw up a peanut butter sandwich (until it was no more), I was a bit reluctant. But still, I was sad that the weather was so crappy! It had finally stopped raining, so I decided to still venture out in hopes that the snorkeling tour would indeed happen.

As I stopped to grab a little breakfast and coffee, miraculously the weather cleared up and the sun came out – snorkeling was happening! I walked by the water and started to feel much better and eventually hopped in my tour boat with a family and an older gentleman from Australia. We went out to the first spot only about a 5 minute boat ride from the mainland, where you could see giant sting rays and sharks swimming around. We even saw a lone barracuda! I was still pretty apprehensive (what a wiener) and thankfully the tour guide Major was very patient and even gave me his better goggles/mask to use. After a few minutes, I was snorkeling along with the rest of them! We went to two other spots after that and saw a lot of coral and every color of fish imaginable – a great experience. Then I chatted for a while with Major and the Australian before hopping out on the shore.

Again, the locals are so friendly and chatty here! It probably helps that I’m a female traveling alone, but they always said hi, asked me my name and made sure I was having a good time. I got to know quite a few of them by name and profession and would always say hi when I saw them. I stopped to buy some earrings from a guy I thought was a local but he ended up being an artist from Colombia and we ended up chatting for a bit in Spanish – hooray! After that I headed back to the hotel, cleaned myself up and went to talk to Richard and Chris about staying another night and ended up chatting with them about marketing, craigslist and various other dorky tech topics.

Afterwards, I headed off with the intention of going to lunch but ended up back at Lazy Lizard’s… ordering a banana daiquiri and soaking up the sun. After that I went for an epic walk around the island – it is seriously sooo beautiful on Caye Caulker – the sunsets, the water and just everything about it is postcard-worthy. I grabbed a beer at a little bar and sat outside to watch yet another sunset and then walked around some more with my beer and caught a part of a local soccer game. Then I headed to the restaurant I went on the first day and ordered some amazing white fish with coconut sauce. After that, I headed back to shower and relax a bit as I planned on heading to the nearby island of San Pedro in the morning.

On Wednesday, I woke up early and headed off via yet another amazing water taxi to the island called Ambergis Caye, often referred to as “San Pedro” as that’s the name of the main town on the island. When doing my minimal research, I discovered that San Pedro was actually the song that Madonna sings about in the song “La Isla Bonita” and that Ambergis Caye is the larger, more touristy destination and after visiting, was glad that I opted for Caye Caulker.

It was still incredibly beautiful – crystal blue water, white sand, a cute, happening downtown and there was even a local school event going on in the town center. But it was definitely busier, a bit more hectic (if you can call an island hectic) and was overrun with tourists driving around in their rented golf carts. I wandered around, shopped and grabbed a rum and coke at a little bar on the water and chatted with a local named Josh who said that San Pedro was definitely the place to party at night if I ever decided to come back and stay there. After that, I had an incredible lunch at a place called Wild Mangos that, for good reason, is highly recommended in all the guide books. I had a fish wrap that I ate so much of that I felt slightly sick afterwards… I also tried a local drink called the “Panty Ripper” but I never got around to asking the exact reasoning for the ridiculous name…

After that, I trekked further along the beach, realizing that Ambergis Caye is definitely a lot bigger than the tiny island I was used to and it was HOT! I made it a good ways down, but decided I was a bit drunk and too tired to go any further and plopped down on the beach and read and enjoyed the rays. After gallivanting around a bit more, I was missing my little island, and hopped aboard another water taxi and got to sit on the top deck, enjoying the amazing view, fierce wind in my hair and gorgeous water all around me.

After getting back to Caye Caulker, I stopped at a local iced coffee shop I’d been wanting to check out and chatted with the owners there about their business. They, a woman from Germany and her partner from Belize, had opened last November and said business was good! I drank an amazing iced coffee with locally grown coffee and they even gave me some free freshly made donuts!

As it was already my last day, I spent the rest of the night walking by my favorite locals, watching the sunset and ate dinner at what is known as the best restaurant (for tourists) in town – Habaneros. As I was actually a bit “fished-out”, I opted for the veggie coconut curry, which was still amazing… and then headed back to my room to pack and drink some rum in my room.

The next morning I woke up quite early, caught a glimpse of the sunset and then headed off on my water taxi back to Belize City to catch my flight. On the taxi ride back to the airport, I finally got a chance to use my Spanish again as I talked to the sweet taxi driver, Ernesto, who was originally from El Salvador but came to Belize as a refugee with his family when he was very little to escape the civil war in El Salvador – a great conversation and ride and now, here I am already back in my bed in Oakland, after getting in last night!

A few takeaways from this solo trip to Belize…

Belize is seemingly a safe place to go for solo travelers, but you’ll be in the minority. It could have just been the places I went or the time of year… but, there was an overwhelming majority of tourist couples, retired old men, a few groups of friends, and then little, old me. While I wouldn’t take it back for a second, I did at times feel a little lonely (unlike my trip to Argentina and Uruguay where I meet a barrage of solo travelers). However, being alone definitely forced me to talk to interesting strangers all day long and I ended up getting lots of deals and free shots and food (go figure)!

It also reinforced my love for traveling and my hope of once again being able to be a bit of a nomad, even if only for short stints at a time. Seeing new, incredible places and conversing with people from all walks of life absolutely enriches your soul and I won’t stop doing it until I can’t do it anymore. I may be a bit more constrained now, with work and school, but I will definitely still be sure to pencil in some travel time as often as possible.

But honestly, in thinking about the fairly chaotic, social and fast-paced life that I currently live, the little island of Caye Caulker was likely just the thing I needed for a little soulful rejuvenation. I was forced to “go slow” and dammit, I did enjoy it. Although, after all that relaxing, I think I’m now ready for another 3 days off of potentially a little more action in the city by the Bay… 🙂IMG_2385

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El Mercado, San Marcos & more scorpions

And the D is gone!!! It actually has been gone for about 4 days, so that is just fantastic. 🙂 I do love all the different terms for it, though… Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly(love that one, Steph!) and so on. Makes it seem a bit… er… cuter?

After recovering from the sour tummy, we had a night where the power was completely out, and with the help of a match to light our gas stove and a bunch of candles, I made a delicious potato, mushroom and garlic soup! Other than that, the week was fairly normal, with a night of trivia at the local bar with a few friends from school. We had the intention of visiting Xela over the weekend, the second largest city in Guatemala, and staying Sat. night, but discovered that the price of the shuttle was quite a bit higher as it is low season and we would likely be the only ones going.

This past weekend was a great one. Friday night we made some delicious mac and cheese at home(hehe) and went out to see a bit of live music. First, we randomly stumbled upon a band at a bar/restaurant called El Jardin that was playing bossanova, so we went and grabbed some cuba libres and watched them for a bit. Next, some people at our school told us about a gypsy reggae(?) band that was playing at the Buddha Bar, so we went and had an appetizer and a giant beer and watched them play for a while. I ended up seeing a Scottish woman named Tara that works at one of our favorite restaurants, Clover(Irish-style restaurant in the touristy area) and talked to her for a bit. She randomly came to San Pedro on a trip and ended up staying here for a year and a half! Seems to be a common story around here. We then went to a bar near our house called El Barrio and met up with some friends from our Spanish school and talked it up for a bit. We then headed back to Buddha for a bit, but by that point it was full of drunk tourists, so we decided to head home.

Saturday was fairly uneventful. Lex had classes as his teacher was sick one day during the week, so I took myself out to breakfast and had an amazing meal by the lake and wrote in my journal. After Lex was done with his class, we went for a long walk around town and checked out a few different parts of town, including an area where you can see that the water has risen so much that it’s drowned crops and houses. Yup, definitely no such thing as climate change, as the water has risen about 12 meters in 3 years and maintained the last 50 years before that.

Sunday, we woke up early to head to the local market in the center of town. They have a market there every day, but my teacher had told me earlier in the week that Sunday’s were the big market days, where people come from various towns on the lake to sell their goods(mostly all edible). We bought potatoes, carrots, avocados, peanuts, onions, a lime(for our cuba libres), eggs, zucchinis – all for the whopping price of about $3 U.S.!

After dropping our goodies off at home, we then decided to hop on a boat to a nearby town called San Marcos, known for it’s yoga, meditation and tranquil vibe. After about a 20 minute boat ride and $2 U.S. each(the guy actually totally overcharged us which we found out later) we were in the peaceful land of San Marcos! Everything was incredibly green and… quiet! We walked up what we thought was the only path into town and found a restaurant called La Paz(vegetarian friendly, as are most restaurants here due mostly to the foreigner-hippies that have settled here) and ate a delicious veggie-filled burrito and a tofu sandwich. The owner of the restaurant, a Guatemalan man named Benjamin, sat down with us and talked to us for a while about Occupy Wall Street and other various hot topics. He was very sweet and kind, like pretty much everyone else we’ve met from here.

We then walked around San Marcos for a while, and found ourselves walking through leavy, beautiful, cobble-stone paths. What a contrast between San Marcos and San Pedro – San Pedro is quite a bit louder(turkeys, dogs, random fireworks, women selling things, restaurants and bars) and San Marcos was incredibly quiet, green, and peaceful with very few shops, restaurants, bars, or even people. We were there on a Sunday, though, so that could have been part of it… We walked past some interesting mediation centers, one called Las Piramides that had pyramid shaped buildings and signs, some puppies and a building painted like an elephant that I believe was an artist’s commune of sorts.

As the clouds started rolling in, we decided we should probably head back before the rain started and waited on the make-shift deck(as the rising water level has basically consumed what used to be their dock, as well as the front barriers to keep the water out of the buildings near the dock). We then caught our boat ride back home and walked back from the Panajachel dock to our apartment. We then rested at home for a bit and again headed out(in the pouring rain, with our ponchos on) with our ukuleles to a nearby bar/restaurant where a friend had asked us to meet him and a few others for a jam session.

We were the first to arrive so we drank a few cuba libres, then started talking to a Hungarian violin player that plays some amazing violin at various bars around town. We then decided to play on stage with her – Lex and I playing uke and her playing violin. We ended singing Faith by George Michael, and then it was time for another jam group to go on. Our friend Jerrod played the bass, while a Guatemalan couple played the drums and the guitar and a French rapper/beat-boxer took the mic… it was pretty sweet! After they were done playing, our group took turns singing, playing guitar, ukulele, etc. It was a very fun night – finally got to play some music a bit, other than uke in our apartment!

Oh yeah… both Saturday and Sunday evenings we found a scorpion crawling around the ceiling and used a broom and a book to bring the little fellows to their demise. We’re wondering why we are having so many when most people we’ve talked to haven’t seen one… superstition has it that when you kill one, another one returns in it’s place – AAAHH!

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Chichi market and back to school!

Sunday, Lex and I woke up super early(as we’ve been waking up at around 9 – 9:30 every day) to hop on the shuttle to go to Chichicastenango. Chichi is a large, predominantly indigenous town that is famous for it’s giant markets on Thursdays and Sundays. About 14 of us piled into a tiny shuttle at 8:00 am and set off on the pot-hole filled road(the only road) that gets you out of San Pedro. The ride wasn’t incredibly pleasant as we had a car full of young Israeli kids that somehow took control of the radio and started playing loud Israeli music most of the ride. Some of them had just gotten out of the army and apparently it’s custom for them to travel a bit as soon as they’re finished. Just wish the Israeli dance party wasn’t quite so early in the morning!

Anyway, it took about 2 1/2 hours to get to Chichi, with a stop at a small tienda on the way where we had to pay the equivalent of $.12 to use the bathroom which didn’t have a toilet seat or toilet paper. As soon as we stepped off the shuttle, the driver pretty much let us free without any real direction as to where the market was, but apparently he told a few of the other people on the bus that it was up the hill. We found it easily and the second we stepped in, were bombarded with offers to buy beautiful textiles from all of the local woman. I’ve never said, “no, gracias” more times in my life! We walked around for a few minutes, catching a glimpse of a holy parade, complete with icon-statue-type saint depictions and burning sage. We then decided to eat some food and drink some cafe at a local cafe before really diving in.

We ate some delicious eggs, pancakes, bread and cafe with a 2 other girls from our school that came along, and then set out into the wilderness of the market! We were again bombarded, but got fairly good at not making eye contact and politely saying no when we didn’t want something. I bought a few candles(to light up our awkwardly dim apartment), some pasta(as it was super cheap), handmade bracelets for Lex and I, and finally at the end haggled a bit with a woman for a beautiful handmade purse that has a parrot on it. Ooh, I also got a cute little something for my mom that hopefully she’ll like.

We then just wandered around for a while, until it was time to make the trek home, seeing a beautiful scene of women selling flowers on church steps and smelling raw meat hanging in stands.

The start of this week has been pretty calm – we’re back to Spanish lessons this week, which I think we’re both slowly getting better at. We also made a trip to the market(the local market) on Monday where we bought carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, chiles and a pineapple! We’ve been pretty good about cooking most of our meals at home but are finally starting to incorporate some fresh, local ingredients into our meals! Last night, however, I started having a bit of what I’ll refer to as the “D”… I believe it was from drinking some of the coffee at the school, as I’m not sure if they use purified water and the water isn’t boiled per say. Anyway, hopefully that will go away soon, but I’ve made it 2 weeks in Guatemala so far!

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Chillaxing and reflecting…

This week has been a good one… up late a few nights worrying about spiders and scorpions(because we’ve had both of them in our room) and bothered and entertained by day by loud turkeys and roosters downstairs. I think we’re finally settling in a bit to life here, albeit a fake, touristy, student one. We started the week with canned refried black beans and packaged tortillas and now we’re making fresh black beans(have to cook them overnight!), eating local tostadas and buying fresh avocados. We still have a ways to go and need to start shopping more at the local market versus the grocery store with packaged goods… trying to avoid the D as long as possible, though.

So, we’ve learned that we are in the very touristy part of town and that most of the locals live farther away in different circumstances, you could call them. Yesterday, I went with one of the teachers at the school, Ruben and another student to visit and bring food to a poor family in the local area. Part of our tuition goes to buying food every other week for the 22 poorest families/residents in the city(apparently these people are known by the community and were selected by them to receive aid).

The first person we went to visit was an old woman(70ish years, more or less as I’ve learned that they don’t celebrate birthdays here or keep exact track of how old they are) who lives by herself in a large house that she essentially house-sits for. Her husband died and she has no other family or other place to go to, so a rich family from Guatemala City lets her stay there and look after the house. She only spoke the Mayan dialect of Spanish, so I couldn’t communicate with her but she was telling our teacher how grateful she was and that she hoped God would bless our travels. What a sweet, adorable little lady she was! It broke my heart that she had no other family here and stayed in that house by herself in one room with a kitchen and nothing to her name.

The second family we visited literally brought tears to my eyes. The father was blind, the mother was sick and recuperating from a surgery she just had(the poor can get healthcare – imagine that U.S.) and they had at least 3 children. They lived in one room altogether, with a little outside kitchen to cook their food. The mom, when she’s better, will make handmade belts that apparently take 2 days to make, that she will sell to tourists for 20 quetzales(about $2.50 U.S.). So amazingly sad, but what great spirit the people still had. It’s very interesting though that they have no homeless people here as the community is very family/community focused. They take in or help feed people that are struggling.

Last night, we then met up with some of the gringos from our Spanish school and drank cervezas and talked about our travels. I must have had something bad to eat for dinner, or just too many different things, because I had to leave for a few minutes to vomit in the street(mind you, I wasn’t drunk at all). However, once whatever demon was inside of me was out, I was fine again and went back to chatting it up(although I didn’t drink much more).

Today, Lex and I woke up early and took a boat to Panajachel – a local town, where we saw a parade for the Children’s Day celebration here(yes, they have a children’s day and a mother’s day) that was pretty awesome. Lots of little kids in costumes dancing and playing in marching bands. We ate breakfast at a little restaurant and then took a taxi to an awesome nature reserve that Kate and I went to last time. We saw spider monkeys, coatis and waterfalls. Oh yeah, and pouring rain… as we were at the top of the preserve(we climbed up quite a ways), it started pouring rain down on us. Luckily, I had brought my rain poncho, but as Lex hadn’t brought his, poor guy was soaked. He bought a dry t-shirt at the gift shop, then we walked back into town and hailed our boat back to San Pedro. For tomorrow, we bought tickets to the Chichicastenango market – so excited!



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