Monthly Archives: August 2013

By Boat And By Bus to Belize and Back

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Who knew they liked Americans so much in Central America? They even set up a special travel status just for us: the CA-4. Now that’s a bit of southern hospitality.

Dock at La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada Hostel, Livingston

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participate in an agreement called the CA-4 (Central America – 4) that allows U.S. citizens to travel freely between the four countries for ninety days.  We entered Guatemala at the end of February, extended our visas in mid-May for an additional ninety days by going to Guatemala City, filling out a short application form and paying a fee, and finally, had to leave the country for seventy-two hours in August to renew our visas and continue our travels into Honduras and Nicaragua.  We decided to exit Guatemala via Livingston, a funky little town on the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat.

Great Food - A bit messy but GOOD

Great Food – A bit messy but GOOD

Livingston is a small port city, with a population of roughly 17,000 souls, inhabited by
the Garifuna (descendants of 17th century shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous Carib),  Q’cqchi’ Mayan and Guatemaltecans. Spanish is still the predominant language but Garifuna, English and Mayan are heard regularly.  The cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala with a tasty selection of seafood and coconut based dishes.  We walked up the short main street, Calle Principal, which included a very steep hill from the little marina, wandered about a few side streets where we encountered a sow and piglet, chickens and goats and …that was it.  We’d seen the town.

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

We took our passports to the immigration office, received our exit stamps and, early Tuesday morning we boarded a launch for a ride across deep blue water sparkling in the sunlight to the port city of Punta Gorda, Belize.  After receiving our visa entry stamps, we caught a local bus for a two-hour ride to Independence, also called Mango Creek by the locals, and finally boarded a water taxi for the fifteen minute ride to Placencia.  It was a long day waiting and riding upon various forms of transport, hauling our backpacks and suitcases around and about, but it went surprisingly smooth and people were smiling, friendly and very helpful.

Main Street - Getting around in Placencia

Main Street – Getting around in Placencia

Placencia peninsula is sixteen miles long and very narrow with the Placencia lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other; as we walked about  Placencia Village we could catch glimpses of both the lagoon and the sea.   The village was founded by pirates and is a mixture of expats, creoles, Garifuna and Mayan Belizeans all speaking several variations of English, the official language of Belize, a former British colony.  The spoken English varied from a very proper British accent to a thick, melodic Caribbean patois that we had to strain hard to understand.  Added into this mix was the background talk from the tourists we met (German, Israeli, French, Canadian, etc.).

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Because it was low season, we found a charming room with a kitchenette and porch complete with a hammock on the beach and a view of the Caribbean for a discounted price.  There we spent our three-day exile gazing out at the Caribbean, occasionally swimming, laying in the sun, swinging in the hammock and reading (and did I mention sweating buckets in the thick humidity?).  This was a pleasant and leisurely respite before we had to reverse our trip back to Livingston and then begin the next leg of our journey to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Quiet  time at dawn-

Quiet time at dawn-

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

The Manatee Whisperer At Lago Izabel

Lago IzabelWe caught the 6:00 AM collectivo to El Estor from Rio Dulce and met Don Benjamin at his boat at 6:45. He liked to be on the lake early in the morning. It was just the two of us this morning so there was no disagreement when he asked us why we had come to the lake; we had come to see the fresh water sea manatee that live in Lago Izabal. We agreed that the monkeys, water birds and any other critters would be great but we were there for the manatee.

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

El Estor is a quiet village that sits at the northwest end of Lago Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. And Don Benjamin had come recommended as a sort of “Whisperer” to the manatee. He had lived on the lake all his life and was reputed to be knowledgeable about their habits. He explained where we would go in the search for the manatee and where, in his judgment, we would be most likely to see them.Still Waters

The Boca de Pilochic Bio-reserve was established at the western end of the lake where the largest river, the Rio Pilochic feeds in from the highlands. In this warm, shallow end, with marshy fingers extending into the jungles, the fresh water sea manatee make their home. In this protected area, along with a handful of other sites, this endangered species breeds and preserves the population in the wild.

We slowly motored along the perimeter of the bays, among water lilies and aquatic plants that are the manatee’s food. We were the only craft on the lake as far I as could see.On the south shore of a bay we drifted into an inlet and tied off for coffee and a light snack. “Paciencia” was not a problem for us we told Don Benjamin – we would be patient. We had anticipated this trip for some time.

Cormorants

Cormorants

While looking for the manatee we saw and heard the deep growl of the howler monkeys; several families were in the trees adjacent to the lake. Some were feeding, some at rest. There were the water birds as well: egrets, herons, cormorants, perhaps kingfisher, all feeding in the shallows of the lake.

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

As the morning wore on and the sun rose in the sky Don Benjamin was smiling, saying the manatee liked the sun. Shortly after that we began to encounter the manatee in groups of a dozen or more. We would follow them as they swam in a line, just below the surface. It was not the cresting of the whales, but it was amazing to be within a few feet of this massive, timid and endangered species. As one group dove to deeper water we would swing around and pick up another group in short order.

Manatee below the lake surface

Manatee below the lake surface

The morning had been very tranquil, followed by a flourish of joy and activity with sightings of the manatee. It was close to noon when we returned to the dock and time to catch the bus back to Rio Dulce for the next leg of our trip to the Caribbean coast.Water front at Lago Izabel

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Up A Creek…

The Rio Dulce  (Sweet River)

The Rio Dulce (Sweet River)

Antigua was somewhere behind us. At 4:00 AM on a Friday morning we’d hoisted the suitcases to the roof of the crowded shuttle van and headed for Guatemala City and the waiting bus which labored on our behalf during the uneventful six hour drive to Rio Dulce, the river route to the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Rio Dulce is a haphazard town that has grown up on the banks of the river for which it is named. It possesses a muggy humidity much different than the rarified air of the Guatemalan highlands. It continues to grow thanks to the influx of wealthy Guatemaltecans who build trendy vacation homes with large boat houses.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

The only concession to historic importance is the old military fort, Castillo San Filipe de Golfo built in 1657 to keep the safe sanctuary of the lake, Lago Izabal, out of the hands of foreign pirates. In Rio Dulce we engaged a pushcart driver for our bags and backpacks and headed for the river. The launch from the Kangaroo Hotel, which had come highly recommended by a friend in Antigua, arrived shortly. As the name implies, it is an Aussie operation. Gary opened shop about five years previous and is one of a handful of foreigners on the river.The Kangaroo Hotel The Kangaroo, more a hostel than a hotel, is a rambling, comfortable and welcoming place to visit and our stay there was an enjoyable experience. Nestled in a dead-end branch of the river it was quiet, isolated and inhabited by polyglot travelers from around the world. With our sight-seeing itinerary and Gary’s knowledge of available resources we found ourselves up a creek, so to speak. The following morning we boarded the Kangaroo launch and headed for the collectivos (shuttle vans) in Rio Dulce. Forty minutes later we were dropped at the trail head for the Cascada Agua Caliente, the only reported hot water falls in the world. Approaching the waterfallA national park, it retains all its natural beauty, the trail being the only concession to progress. Here you can swim in a natural pool, stand or sit in the hot waters of the falls or climb a short distance and take a mud bath. Afterwards, depending on both bravery and adrenalin, you can either jump from the ledge or climb back down to the pool. With the canopy overhead the creek is nearly protected from the direct glare of the sun.Cascade of hot water When we felt sufficiently sated with the agua caliente we headed back to the highway and flagged down the next bus headed for Valle Boquerón. Boquerón is a deep canyon cut through lime stone hills creating a sun dappled creek bottom with towering cliffs, fissures and shallow caves.Valle Boqueron We set off up the creek in a long canoe, manned by our guide, and tied off on a gravel beach above a small set of rapids at the terminus of the trip. Here in a quiet pool of water, sparkling in the sunlight, reflecting the deep greens of the trees and limestone cliffs in the steeply cut canyon we spent our time exploring, swimming and relaxing. For the second time that day we found ourselves up a creek, fortunately with a paddle.Valle Boqueron By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Adios La Antigua

La MercedWe’ll be leaving Antigua this week and heading to Rio Dulce and Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast and then into Belize again to renew visas. We’ve been here for over five months, much longer than the two month stay we had originally planned when we arrived to volunteer. Our lifestyle of slow travel came to a temporary stop when a chance meeting, our own flexible itinerary and a bit of serendipity landed us our first official housesitting gig for an additional three months.

La Catedral Ruins

La Catedral Ruins

What is it about Antigua that so captivates us?  Surrounded by three volcanos in the central highlands of Guatemala, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala.Santa Rosa ruins Founded in 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors the city was “the capital of the Spanish Empire in America” from the 16th to 18th centuries until, after a devastating series of earthquakes earlier in the 18th century, a major earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city and the Spanish moved their capital to Guatemala City.There are impressive and melancholy ruins of ancient churches everywhere one walks throughout the city as well as a multitude of beautiful Spanish colonial and baroque edifices still in use.

Fountain in Parque Central

Fountain in Parque Central

Antigua is a very compact city and it’s wonderful to be able to walk anywhere we want within thirty to forty minutes. However, the sidewalks can be uneven with little steps going up or down and very narrow in places forcing us to walk single file or even on the street. Traffic right of way and trying to cross a street can be a guessing game called “Pedestrian Beware!” since you can’t assume that the cars will actually stop for you. There are few street signs on the corners so, for those of us who are directionally dyslexic, finding and orienting yourself can be a bit of a challenge too. The streets are paved with cobblestones and, while picturesque, can be treacherous if you’re not paying attention.

Marimbas - Guatemalan traditional music

Marimbas – Guatemalan traditional music

And it’s hard sometimes to watch your feet when there are so many things to see. Most weeks have a celebration or procession and there’s always the live traditional band with trombones, tubas and huge drums playing in the late afternoon on Fridays at the Parque Central. Just sitting in a café or a bench in the park watching the people (tourists and locals) can provide colorful sights of interest and entertainment.

A couple in the park

A couple in the park

The Antiguans are quite indulgent so long as you are respectful. They realize that tourists are the life-blood of the city and work to accommodate their desires. In return, we maintain the attitude of guests in their country, educate ourselves as to their customs and remain appreciative of their patience. This is rather simple when they routinely, and with great tact, help us with our struggling Spanish.

We have been fortunate to have been in other colonial cities; but it may be a time before we encounter another with the charming mix that brings La Antigua prominence.beautiful smile

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Becoming Minimalists or “How Heavy Is That Suitcase?”

Blog0511-1010-1423-4936_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Girl_Carrying_a_Heavy_Suitcase_clipart_imageWe were enthusiastic and competitive participants in the game of life called “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. That is, until we decided to change our lifestyle to become perpetual travelers. In the year that we took to prepare for our new lives we had to make a huge shift in our attitudes about potential purchases. Almost overnight we went from active consumerism to answering our gold standard question “Will this fit in my suitcase?”

When we first moved to Padre Island in Corpus Christi, Texas, we drafted a hurricane evacuation plan in the event that we were forced to leave the island. This was a great rehearsal because it made us prioritize, select the few things that we could not replace and fit them in a finite space, our car. These items included: household files and documents, photos, family keepsakes and a few select pieces of art. When we started getting rid of our stuff, we tackled the irreplaceable list first.

blogfileCartoon 17611) We toted bags of files to a shredder service and finally winnowed our files and documents to a couple of envelopes that would fit in a safe deposit box. We made notarized copies of documents to take with us (birth certificates, background checks, university diplomas, etc.) and uploaded copies to Dropbox, a cloud-based file storage service.

2) As for the pre-digital era photo albums, I divided our pictures into two groups: a few quality professional photos and a huge quantity of not-so-great pictures taken over the years with point and shoot cameras.  After receiving a quote from a professional scanning service (the Scan Cafe), we boxed up the better quality pictures and old family photos, and mailed them off. The service took about a month from the time the pictures were mailed to when they were returned and cost about $150. blogkkin186lThe remainder of the photos we scanned ourselves into the computer.  I saved just a few pictures after our son, no sentimental slob, convinced me that he did not want the photo albums and would be content with a disc and to view the albums online. The last of the originals worth saving were mailed to friends and family. In the end, were able to take our pictures with us.

3) Richard had collected oil and water-color paintings, pen and ink drawings etc. during our marriage. He was able to place a few pieces with the Montana and Oregon Historical Museums (and console himself with the thought of sharing these with others). Many pictures were shipped to family and friends as gifts, a few were donated to charity fund-raising auctions and some were sold.

Blogpban8l4) Family Keepsakes. Again, we contacted various family members and shipped off what was wanted. The rest were sold.

One of the ways to keep our sentimental emotions tamped down as we shed our former life was to remind ourselves that all this stuff prevented us from doing what we wanted to do: travel. In the end we disposed of everything through two yard sales, Craig’s list, gifts to family and friends or charitable donations.

Throughout the year-long process of changing our lifestyle we tried to laugh as often as we could and worked hard to keep our sense of humor.blogggm090721l

By Anita and Richard, July, 2013