Friday, September 30, 2005

All wet.

Hotel Tilawa, Lake Arenal 9:00 p.m.

"You're going to Central America in the rainy season?" When my daughter, Jessica asked with a bit of surprise, I matter-of-factly replied "yes." The term "rainy season" didn't mean much to me. Now I have a much clearer understanding!

A bizarre ride tonight. Somehow, I got totally turned around in heavy rain. I was looking for this hotel because of a reference to windsurfing in the "Lonely Planet" guide.

In the dark and rain, I could barely see. And the roads were in bad shape and poorly-marked. I was completely soaked. Dangerous, I know, but I stubbornly continued. At a crossroads, I stopped to wring out my gloves and consult the map (fortunately, the map is plastic-impregnated!) A tour bus driver stopped to help. When he said the direction I wanted to go was back where I had come from, I didn't believe him. I asked if there were any hotels in this area. "No." He said they were all in the opposite direction. Looked at the map again, and at the towns listed on the crossroads signs. He was right. My manly sense of direction had quite abandoned me (as if it were ever there to begin with.)

I told myself "whatever. I'm just going to keep plugging away tonight until I get it right, no matter how long it takes." Returned to Tilarán, the main jumping off point for this region, then tried again to find "Hotel Tilawa", this time asking directions before leaving town.

The correct road was in much better condition than the one on which I had been lost. Easily found the hotel after about a five mile ride. As soon as I pulled up, I was greeted by "J.P.", the young owner, a beer in his hand.

"You knew I speak English?"

"You're driving a motorcycle, aren't you?"

I asked how much a room costs.

"Roy (his manager) and I were just talking. What did you pay last night?"

I gave him a suspicious look. "Why do you want to know?"

"We’ll match what you paid last night, so you better give a low number."

“I think it was $15.”

“Okay, that's what it will be tonight."

I wasn't about to argue, but I was mystified by his behavior.

"I’m parked right in front. Is that okay?"

"It’s a nice bike, right? Bring it in here," he said pointing to a spot in the foyer, next to a sofa.

I met Roy and learned he's taking over management since J.P. is going to Encinitas, California to take care of some business. After piling the luggage in my room, I followed J.P.'s suggestion to join him for a beer downstairs in the restaurant. He was seated at the bar with two other young Americans: his brother Cooper, and a friend, Michael. I was not quite in synch with the conversation, perhaps because they were several drinks ahead of me. J.P is kind of a wild man (who resembles Santa Rosa musician, Daryl Scairiot). He came here sixteen years ago, at the age of twenty-four, to build this hotel. Now at forty, he has a family, scattered about a bit, and plans to retire before long.

He's very much into "kite-boarding", which I hadn't even heard of before. And Lake Arenal is one of the windiest places on the planet, he says. "Take whatever horsepower that motorcycle has and multiply it by three. That's how hard a kite pulls here." He used to windsurf, and still teaches it to guests, but kite-boarding is the sport now.

Cooper is a ski instructor in Utah. (J.P. was formerly a ski instructor.) He flies down "as often as I can". His wife works for Delta Airlines. Michael is a skateboarder. (There's also a skateboard park on the grounds, and J.P. suggested I might want to take my motorcycle out on it!)

J.P. said they had just ordered some pasta from the kitchen, and I was welcome to join them for dinner. We moved to a dining table, and were served a basic elbow pasta with cream sauce - not too interesting, but it was five bucks.

All the while, as we dined and talked, I was trying to figure out what this "scene" was all about. With no other guests in sight (it's the "dead" season), the hotel seemed like a big playground for these guys. In a glass-walled room off the dining room, stood stainless-steel fermentation tanks.

"Are you making beer?"

"We're going to. I traded some land for the equipment..." J.P. said he had previously constructed a brewery in Costa Rica for a Japanese firm.

After dinner, I went off to my room, passing a glass case containing three small poisonous vipers, a small jar of viper food next to it.

***

After checking out this morning, I went back to the internet café in Liberia. Ten minutes from town, I hit rain and that was enough to soak me. Many problems posting to the blog today, and after two hours, I had accomplished little. A video playing inside the café, and seen or heard frequently lately, of Colombian vocalist Shakira singing "No". She is quite the phenomena in Latin America.

Before hitting the road, went for a cappuccino across the street. The rain was moving south, and I wasn't eager to catch up with it. The roads are terrible in Costa Rica, even the so-called Pan American Highway. I was constantly dodging pot holes, usually with success, but not always. And each time I hit one, I'd blurt out some profanity (as if that helped.)

Night falling too fast again. "Crap!" Of course, to compensate, I just pick up the speed, which under the circumstances is not the wisest thing. I cursed the blog for sucking so much time. "It's going to kill me!" (I sometimes forget that there is the element of choice here!)

***

(The hotel power is out tonight, and I'm in bed, typing on the computer, when I suddenly realize I can type, at least to some degree, without seeing the keyboard! I can’t sleep. There's a tightness in my lungs, and it seems connected to the damp concrete of this building. My mind continues to wander. "What is this place all about?" Shades of "Hotel California".)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hotel Villa Acacia Beach Resort, Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica




11:00 p.m.

This is a beautifully landscaped little villa a few hundred yards from the beach. I inquired about their rates. Normally $70 per night, they would let me have a room for $50, breakfast and taxes included. At my request, Tomei Mejia showed me a room.

High quality appointments and an artistic touch in the paintings and crafts generously displayed throughout the rooms and passageways. Boz Scaggs and Simon and Garfunkel playing on the stereo. Must be my kind of place.

The cost was still pretty steep for my budget. I asked if she could do any better on the price. Consulting the owner, Manrique Calvo, she offered $45, if I paid cash. "Great."

Unpacked, washed clothes, showered, then returned to the dining patio to relax a bit. No beer (it's available at the market 100 yards away), but Manrique talked me into buying some wine. I told him I need a friend to drink with, so he agreed to share a bit. (Tomei declined my offer.) The wine, a 2003 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon from Colchagua Valley, produced by Undurraga. $10 U.S. for the bottle was pretty good! Wine and a hamburger with fries, and I was quite satisfied.

Manrique, who seemed to spend most of his time shirtless and in shorts, started this business four years ago, after about forty years in the "commercial" world. In the last two years, Playa Hermosa has boomed, with many North Americans building here, and he pointed to all the homes on the hillsides. He said the "Ticos" (Costa Ricans) who sell are getting a high price for their properties, they then move on to another area.

Manrique helped me put together an itinerary for the next few days, to include Arenal Volcano, the Monteverde Cloud Forest, San Jose and the U.S. Embassy, and finally the Oso Peninsula.

We both agree George W. Bush is a disaster for the U.S. and the World! I saw a brief clip of former President (and Nobel Prize winner) Oscar Arias. Manrique says he’s running again in the February elections and stands a good chance of winning. If he loses here, we could use him in the States!

A brief glimpse of the local weather channel, shows a tropical storm moving north toward Baja California. I wonder if that's what's been driving all this rain the past few days?



Tomei Mejia, second in command at Villa Acacia


***

A bit of a dilemma this morning: I didn't want to stay another day at the expensive Hotel Sitio and the town of Liberia is not particularly attractive, but it was pouring rain.

At 11:30, I went back to the internet café, where I plugged in again. A perfect seat to watch my bike and monitor the weather, which seemed to be clearing. I was there for nearly three and a half hours. When I looked up again, it was raining heavily. Time to go, but now what? I walked across the street to get a coffee and ponder my next steps. As I sat in the café, I watched the street turn into a river.

I had to move. I would get soaked just accessing my rain gear, but I went for it. By the time I got everything on, it seemed to be clearing again, thinning clouds to the west. Drove a few blocks and I was steaming. At the big intersection, my glasses started fogging just from the steam rising out of my clothes and helmet. I needed to get moving! It’s a short drive from Liberia to the coast. I just picked a road to follow, heading to Playa Coco and some of the other little beaches out this way. An odd mix of impoverished “Tico” villages and new villas for the gringos. Anchorages are dotted with yachts and small boats.

Playa Hermosa felt a bit better. But climbing the hillsides, the foreigners' mansions are taking over. Soon this area will be unapproachable by the locals, unless they’re working for someone here.

I came upon this attractive villa as sunset approached.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Hotel Sitio, Liberia, Costa Rica

10:45 p.m.

Just up the street from this hotel is a “Food Mall” at the town's main intersection. "Burger King", "Church’s Chicken" and "Papa Murphy’s Pizza". I went to "Church’s" for the first time, and have to admit it wasn’t bad! Heart attack on a plate though. We’ve exported our health problems to other cultures which must now learn the lessons the U.S. has been struggling with for fifty years.


EARLIER TODAY

A 2:00 p.m. check-out time at the "La Mar". I actually got out about 1:30 and drove the 12 or so miles to the border. Seeing the congestion and chaos ahead, turned around to refuel at a relatively quiet station.

I was besieged by tramitadores (and a solitary money changer) as soon as I pulled up to the border. I held them at bay until a police officer came over and broke it up, scolding them for their behavior. It was pouring rain and I was getting drenched. I then turned to the money changer, pulled him under some eaves to get out of the rain, and asked his rate. 470 Colones per dollar. My notes on the rates indicated 485 was the market rate. He came up to 475 but said "no mas", indicating he made very little commission on this (which seemed accurate.) From what I can see, these guys are no worse than banks. With their service charges, the banks may even be worse. I exchanged a $100 bill (which the “Lonely Planet” guide says most Costa Ricans won’t touch).

The policeman directed me through a gate (and beyond the reach of the tramitadores), to Nicaraguan immigration and customs. Outside the building, a uniformed man, greeted me with an umbrella and escorted me under cover. He collected my permit, then directed me inside. Found three other Americans (about my age) waiting in line. They have moved here from Seattle. Living about 100 miles west of the capital, San Jose, they said there is much development going on there, with many North Americans moving down. It seemed a good opportunity (to cash in on the real estate boom.) They warned about the bad roads ahead.

My passport is quickly filling up. I will probably have to seek an embassy soon to get some additional pages. Paying a $2 fee, formally exited Nicaragua and moved down the road to Costa Rica’s immigration and customs. Before going further, the bike had to go through a disinfection. A worker sprayed off the mud on and around the tires. I asked him if he would clean the whole bike. (Getting cocky now, aren’t we?) No cost for the service.

The Costa Rican side seemed much more crowded and, surprisingly, less organized. Officers directed me through a building to the immigration office. I was freezing as I stood sopping wet in the air-conditioned office. Insurance is mandatory and I had to pay a $20 fee for coverage. After filling out immigration documents, I was sent to another office, then across the street to customs. The young customs officer had his head down on the desktop. I woke him and he handed me a customs form to fill out, then walked outside. He logged me in, then sent me two hundred meters down the road. Coming to a security gate, I pulled out the documents and asked what the man required.

He said I missed a step and sent me back to another office. This turned out to be where they actually registered the liability coverage. More documents to fill out. Outside the building, I found two Danes, apparently father and son, looking over the motorcycle. They had come to deliver two fire trucks that Denmark is donating to Nicaragua.

At about an hour or hour and a half, this was the lengthiest border crossing yet. But finally, I was able to move on into Costa Rica. Thus far, no border officials (nor police or military inspectors) have shown anything more than a casual interest in what I'm carrying on the bike. There have been a couple questions about what I have in the panniers, but no one has actually wanted to look. We'll see if it's the same going north!

Rain was steady and very cool, with no sign of letting up. It reminded me of some of the miserable riding along the Gaspé. By the time I reached Liberia, I had enough. Though I traveled less than 100 miles today, I needed to dry off. I didn’t care to become ill.

Liberia seemed to have just a single main intersection, with a few hotels around it. I had to make a choice, and ended up here.

Talked the desk manager down slightly in his rate. $45, breakfast and taxes included. In my mind, still too much. (When am I going to start staying within my “$50-per-day budget”?) The hotel, a “Best Western”, has seen (much) better days, though they are doing remodeling of the casino. In my room, toilet paper flowers adorned the bathroom!

After changing into a dry shirt, I took a walk down to the Food Mall. Afterwards, continued east across the highway and discovered Liberia’s central district. Near the park, I found several internet cafés. Stopped in a little café for a cappuccino.

Returned to the hotel and packed up my computer, returning to the internet café directly across from the coffee shop. It was the only one that didn’t seem to have a problem with me bringing in my own computer.

These internet cafes are some of the most “happening” places in town. Thank goodness for the younger generations, who are embracing technology and even dragging their parents in to show them how it works.

Worked from 6:30 until their 10:00 p.m. closing. Though I checked on it periodically, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable about leaving the bike parked out on the street.

Stopped at a grocery and picked up some roasted-in-the-shell peanuts. Two bags, from two different producers. Sampling both, they were clearly not fresh. I guess I'll wait until I'm back in the U.S. to try peanuts again.

Baseball


Out across Lake Nicaragua, the volcanic islands of Concepción and Madera


After a breakfast of pancakes, a couple pieces of bacon and some (weak “American-style”) coffee, I looked around the hotel grounds a bit. Still quite wet from last night’s rain and clouds hanging low over the land.

Found a room near the entry dedicated to the major league baseball career of Denis (“Dennis”) Martinez, who while with the Expos, pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in July of 1991. The room is filled with photos, posters, newspapers, proclamations, bats, jerseys, gloves, trophies, etc. Denis is from Granada, Nicaragua and owns the hotel.

Strangely emotional to walk around this small shrine, now aging and somewhat neglected. A glimpse of a glorious past, a moment frozen in time.



A closer look at Concepción

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hotel La Mar Lake Resort, La Virgen, Rivas, Nicaragua


Since there were no other human guests at the hotel, I had to settle for the company of amphibian friends. Not a very talkative bunch.


10:30 p.m.

The rain is pouring down about as heavily as I’ve ever seen it. For hours, the night rumbled like a distant war zone, but now the campaign has come ashore with amazing intensity, rolling from the Caribbean over this narrow peninsula.

Somewhere I lost an hour. Though the guides say these Central American countries are in the same time zone, GMT -6, it's an hour later than Honduras and Guatemala. The desk clerk said that they return to "normal time" in October.

***

I was making a run for the border, at about 5:30, going as fast as I dare, 70 mph, when all of a sudden I had a magnificent view of Lake Nicaragua with its volcano-islands Concepción and Madera sweeping skyward. And with a perfect setting, I passed by this hotel. It looked abandoned, but I drove down the weed-filled brick drive. No cars, but I found a security guard sitting idly. I asked him if the place were closed, but he said it was open for business.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, but he didn’t understand my question, nor did I understand his reply. A young woman at the reception counter, explained that they’re not busy during the week. Most people come for the weekend, or after the 30th, when they’re paid.

For $46 (total), I could have a room without hot water; $56 included hot water. (I guess that would be considered pretty expensive here.) Breakfast was included with both rates. I asked to see a couple rooms, then took the cold water option. Large rooms with brick walls, white tile floors and lots of golden-stained wood doors. A “teeny” TV and only a dozen channels assured I wouldn’t waste my time watching it. (Well, ALMOST assured.)

I believe I am the only guest. Beside the two people I mentioned, a young man tended the bar, and a woman was in the kitchen. I requested a “Victoria” beer (which the fellow poured into a plastic mug) and went outside on the large patio to take in the view. Very cloudy and rain moving up from the southeast, still the volcanoes were spectacular. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it appeared steam was issuing from Concepción (or cloud was streaming across its summit.)

Rather eerie to be in such a deserted place. But I tried to just appreciate the natural setting. In the fading light, what looked like egrets, hundreds of them, lined the shore. Large toads (or frogs?) sat around the patio, or on the pool coping. (At least I wasn’t alone!) Coconut palms, loaded with fruit stood throughout the grounds. A half dozen net fishermen, waist-deep in the lake, repeatedly cast their nets in front of them.

In the shower, I washed the dirt and grit off my panniers and bags. I came outside frequently to see what changes the night brought. Fireflies looked like slow-moving meteors amidst the tall grasses. Lightning, diffused by the thick overcast, flashed to the north, east and south. Thunder followed long after. Counting the seconds, I estimated the distance at over thirty miles.

As I watched the display, there was a blue flash to the south and suddenly all the lights were out (except for the red aero beacons on a nearby tower, and the faint glow from two or three distant towns.) Removing the human element only intensified the experience. How accommodating!

The security guard came around with a weak flashlight. He found me out at the water' edge and offered to escort me back to the room so I could grab a flashlight. The toads (or frogs?) were the most curious phenomena. I came back with my camera to take a few pictures. They were generally quite cooperative, just sitting there.

EARLIER

Up at 7:30. A rudimentary breakfast. Before packing up, I checked some of the fasteners around the bike. I found the mudguard loose. The top bolt (attaching to the rear brake) seems to be the culprit. I torqued them all, but we'll see if they remain so.

Checked out, then asked if I could work on my computer in the lobby for a while longer. Actually, it was about 2-1/2 hours longer. Stopped at “Kahlua Café” again. Ordered the “Kahlua Sandwich", followed by that good cappuccino and brownie. I was happy to go with a “sure bet”.

I'm not real comfortable in Honduras and Nicaragua, especially Managua. The hawkers and panhandlers are very aggressive in this city. At intersections many of them walk the lines of cars, cleaning windshields, selling lottery tickets, gum, cell phone accessories, bungee cords, jewelry, papers, all sorts of stuff. I don’t know how they can conduct transactions in so little time. They don’t bother me, since getting my wallet out is not an option – my hands are tied up. The motorcycle commands too much attention. Drivers honk, people stare, young men howl with excitement when they see it.

Police stopped me at a checkpoint in Masaya. About six of them, all young men, gathered around. One asked for my papers: license, registration, insurance, passport, “everything”.

I had not purchased insurance for Nicaragua (since no one said it was mandatory.) Just handed him my California policy card along with everything else. He checked the expiration date: 11/7/05 and thought he had caught something, when I quickly assured him that meant November 7th, not July 11th.

The guys grilled me with questions about the bike, how fast I go, where I was going – and many I couldn’t understand, then they finally set me free.

(Probably the most common question I'm asked is "how much does the BMW cost?" Not quite what I would have expected.)

Roads were pretty bad for the first 20 or 30 miles south of Managua. Pot holes everywhere, some unavoidable (especially when caught in a line of vehicles, when line-of-sight is restricted.)

But they improved dramatically towards the border.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Hotel Mansion Teodolinda, Managua, Nicaragua

I said earlier cars come to Mexico to die a slow death. More accurate would be that they come down here to start a new life. Cars and trucks that we in the U.S. have long forgotten, are down here still rolling along (under their own power, or not). Thirty-year-old cars are common. I would guess that fifteen years is about the average.

The pollution in cities is amazing, as buses and trucks belch thick black clouds of exhaust. I can feel my lungs tighten and the rising urgency to escape these unhealthy environs.

Out on the road, truckers honk and wave as we pass each other. People seem to cheer me on. (Jeez, I'm feeling like Lance Armstrong! Okay, perhaps that's a stretch.) I stopped at a gas station in El Paraiso, just down the street from a school. Kids in uniform were streaming into the street. Several came to look at the motorcycle, and regard me with curiosity. They just stood close around. They didn’t seem to be looking for a hand-out, as first I suspected. I sifted through my tank bag and found the zip-lock bag of candy and gum, and opened it for them to help themselves. They stayed around until I left.

From Tegucigalpa to the Nicaragua border, the roads were rough, with many pot holes. For the last couple miles, I passed a solid line of trucks parked on both sides of the shoulder, most pointed toward Tegucigalpa, but some towards Nicaragua as well. Drivers were out talking in small groups.

“What’s going on here? A strike?” I drove on through, as some whooped and hollered. As the only vehicle approaching the border, I noticed a motley group converging on me, waving arms and shouting out directions. I looked for the “official” among them. He had a light blue uniform shirt and an I.D. hung from his neck. I focused on him. He pointed me toward the immigration office. But within moments, the money changers and tramitadores were there to assist.

Took my time getting out of my gear, doing everything intentionally. Then turned to the money changer and asked his rate. 16.30 Cordoba per dollar. Last I checked (a few days ago), that was nearly the bank rate. I bought $100 worth. I shrugged off the tramitadores (they wear official badges here identifying them as such!) I wanted to see if I could do this myself. Still, one stuck with me like a shadow, always there to point me to the next step.

This border crossing was neatly organized and very civil. The Honduran and Nicaraguan immigration officials share the same office. First you see the Honduran official to formerly exit Honduras, then he hands your passport to the Nicaraguan official seated next to him. (I begin to worry as I see the Honduran stamp take up another full page of my passport. That’s two pages for this puny country! I may have to apply for a new passport down the road if there is not enough room for future immigration stamps.)

Paid a $3.00 exit fee in U.S. dollars, then a $7.00 Nicaraguan immigration fee, also in U.S. dollars. Only received a receipt for the exit fee – and that said $2. I didn’t press the issue. It was a minor cost, and I was ready to move on. At the Nicaraguan customs office, they filled out some documents, handed me a copy, then said I was free to go. Mounting the bike, an old woman with a young girl at her side came over to beg for a hand-out. I looked at the girl as if to ask, “should I give in to this scam?” She gave me a big grin. So I handed the old lady a few coins. I also gave the tramitadore a couple dollars though his service was not really required.

Across the border, the road was great, as nice as any two-lane highway in the States, winding through the mountains in nice sweeping curves. The land too seemed cleaner, evidence perhaps of more respect.

It was one of those cool rainy days, similar in feel to that day I drove across West Virginia. A different kind of rain, the sky blanketed in a thick gray stratus layer, not the cumulonimbus clouds that are part of the daily cycle in the tropics.

Managua was right on the edge of all the rain, and when I rolled into this crazy city, it was actually dry. So many people on the streets (and IN the streets) trying to make a buck. Not a place I felt real comfortable riding an expensive motorcycle. It elicited the usual shouts of approval though.

Scrambling for a hotel as night fell, I found two that were business hotels, and quite out of my range (over $100!) At the second, a gentleman offered to lead me to a more reasonable hotel. This one, at $65, is also a business hotel, but a little less luxurious. The rooms actually offer much more than I need, including kitchenettes.

One of the staff recommended Dona Aida for dinner. I made an attempt to find it, but then gave up and instead went to a little place that caught my eye earlier: Kahlua Café. Remembering my obligation to Mr. Shaw, tried the Tuña cerveza.

Sad news from my friends and former co-workers in California. Marcia Andrews and Ray Garassino passed away recently, both from cancer. They had only been gone from Robert Mondavi a short while, beginning new lives. I keep hearing the wise counsel "never postpone what truly must be done. We never know how much time has been allotted."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Honduras Maya Hotel, Tegucigalpa, Honduras


Roadside stand typical of those I've seen throughout Mexico and Central America.


10:00 p.m.

In the "garden annex", rather than the tower of this aging downtown luxury hotel. They apparently acquired the adjacent hotel. It's well-worn, but the rates are lower than the tower.

Unable to connect to the internet in my room, I went to their business center, but learned there is no internet service until 6:00 a.m.; and then it’s $5.00 per 30 minutes. A rip-off.

The air conditioning went out after a power failure. After waiting an hour with no response, I complained to the desk manager. He apologized, and said they were working on it. But this hotel was not alone. "Look at the city..." He was right. With a few exceptions, the city was dark. Presently, they were running on their own power-generation plant. Little to do but go to bed.

***

A 150-mile ride here today from San Pedro Sula. Found a roadside market in the hills, very colorful, with bananas, pineapples, coconuts and limes, among other things. I wanted to try some local bananas. The woman wanted to sell me a whole bunch, but I said it was a problem on my motorcycle. She then broke off a couple small ones and handed them to me. I ate them on the spot, then told her I would like to get a pineapple as well. As she was starting to cut into it, I stopped her, saying I needed a photo, and ran to get my camera.



In the Honduras countryside, fresh pineapple, cut to order!


The road headed into an afternoon thunderstorm, but I wasn’t too concerned because it traveled the valley floor between two mountains. Then (of course!) it started to climb a pass and my riding took on a little more urgency, trying to keep out from under the storm’s center. Soaked by the rain and probably up a couple thousand feet, in pine forest, it actually became chilly.

Broke out of the rain, tracking southwest. Raced a Toyota sports car through the twisting mountain roads for about half an hour, until we dropped out of the mountains and onto a flat plain.

Stopped for gas, but a young man standing at the pump said “no vende.” After several attempts to explain, I finally understood what he was trying to tell me. They can’t sell any combustibles today because it’s a national holiday. This raised some concern, as I had enough fuel to reach Tegucigalpa, but not much more. There wasn’t much left for searching for a hotel, or getting lost. (Which is exactly what I did.)

Entering the city before sunset, it seemed there were soldiers on virtually every corner, carrying old U.S. M-16 rifles. Ended up in some pretty rough parts of the city, including a hugely-popular market district, definitely places where I wouldn’t want to find myself at night.

***

11:00 a.m. San Pedro Sula

An elaborate breakfast buffet is included in the hotel cost. Very luxurious!

Trying to work on the internet is frustrating, as signals are dropped with regularity. The "blogger" and photo-posting programs don’t seem to work under such erratic conditions. This has been fairly common when using wireless.

The business center here offers a "hard wire” connection. Much more dependable, much faster! (But now I have to endure the “The Carpenters’ Greatest Hits” piped into the lobby.)

I’ve been in touch with fellow traveler, Anne Girardin, who is in San Salvador, just west of here, visiting a friend with The World Bank. We may connect in Costa Rica.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Copantl Hotel, San Pedro Sula, Honduras


Banana trees with plastic bags growing on them!


11:30 p.m.

Landed in a “five star” hotel and club, just ahead of a wild lightning storm. This city is at the foot of a mountain range, against which the tropical afternoon clouds piled up. Just before dark, they let loose their light show.

I took this as a sign that I made the correct choice, laying over here in San Pedro. I checked the “Clarion Hotel” first, but this one was cheaper, at $65 a night (I know, it’s a real splurge.)

Sat down to some dinner in the hotel "cafeteria", ordering the national "Salva Vida" cerveza (at about $1.50 here in the hotel, it's a bargain!) and a "Cubano" sandwich (ham, pork and "Velveeta", among other things on it). (I feel I am representing my friend and former co-worker Tim Shaw, down here, sampling the local brews whenever possible. I know he would do the same for me.)

First order of business again was to do my laundry in the sink and get it hung out to dry throughout the room. Next, check the news to see what I’ve missed. Later, I went outside and stood under the portico, watching lightning strike the ridgetop a few miles away.

***



I assume the plastic keeps birds away, but it may have another purpose...


(David Kuhn writes: "A small pocket made in the bag is insectisides for birds, bats and insects. At harvest time only perfect flawless bunches get exported. The rest stay is what we get for local consumption." Thanks, David!)


The border crossing from Guatemala was “interesting.” I left the compound at “Bruno’s” after noon and turned toward the Honduran town of Corinto. My map showed the road incomplete, with 5 to 10 miles of track to the border, but depending on which of the sailors you asked, the opinions varied between “it’s a good road", and “it’s a muddy track.”

Crossed the fertile San Francisco River valley, home to vast banana, date and pineapple plantations (there were countless “Dole” trucks on the highway, carrying produce to Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean.) I took a closer look at one banana plantation, noticing channels cut through the groves, I assume to expedite drainage, and trees tied off on the side opposite the bunches of bananas to prevent them from toppling.

Finally worked up the courage to try some pineapple from a roadside stand. From a huge stack, the woman picked one that was ready to eat, asking if I’d like it cut. She then used a long knife to quickly shave off the outer skin, using the stalk to steady it. She then quartered it lengthwise, each quarter had a portion of stalk attached, which you then use as a handle while eating the pineapple. The cost, 5 Quetzales, is less than 75 cents. Ate one slice at the stand, then wrapped up the remainder in a small plastic bag she provided.

The road was fine, all the way to the border. Came to a Guatemalan customs and immigration stop, a few miles before the border. I was told to park the bike on the shoulder and check in. An officer reviewed my permit and passport, then removed the permit decal from my windshield. On to Honduras. A bridge is under construction at the border. A policeman whistled as I started across. He indicated that before crossing, I needed to go to immigration, and pointed down a gravel road to a small town (Corinto.)

A mile on, I came to a manual lift gate. An officer pointed to the side of the shoulder and I parked where he indicated, out in front of a food stand. He then said the immigration office is down the street and around the corner. A man came up and asked if I needed change. I asked his rate. 17 Limpiras per dollar. We agreed on 18, and I changed $100. The less energy spent on the transaction, the better. I would need Limpiras for the entry fees. Gathered up my documents, helmet, gloves and jacket, and put everything else out of my mind. "Not much I can do about guarding everything."

Immigration was straightforward. I think they charged 35 Limpiras, stamped my passport then sent me across the street to the aduana (customs) office. The customs officer pointed me back across the street to an office right behind immigration, with a sign reading “Tigo”. I first had to go there for some reason. In a tiny, cluttered office, I found a gentleman waiting for something to do. It appeared his job was to fill out documents for the officials.

He asked for my passport and title then started to walk outside. I asked “where are you going (with my passport and title)?” He told me to calm down, “it’s okay.” He came back a few minutes later with the form he needed (which he retrieved from the aduana office.)

On a very old “Smith Corona” typewriter, he pecked one letter at a time, as he filled out the temporary vehicle permit. He needed to disappear two or three more times (with my documents.) Each time, I followed him to the door and watched where he went. Finally, he needed to make copies. I quickly said I had copies of my passport and title. He asked for three of each. He handed back my passport and title, then again disappeared. (Were they selling my bike around the corner? I took a little walk just to be sure it was still there.)

Finally, everything was in order and he handed the documents to me. My last stop was back at the aduana office. “But you have to pay,” he said in Spanish.

Cuanto?”

“950 Limpiras.” (Over $50)

“Excuse me?”

He repeated.

Para que?”

He very quickly listed the fees.

Mas despacio, por favor,” (slower, please.)

Then I said I would need a receipt for everything. Each time he itemized the prices, the cost went down.

In the end, there were three elements to the cost: the permit, which had a 120 Limpiras “value” listed, then a receipt for the form at $20, or 377.43 Limpiras, and then there were the copies and his service. I had to remind him I had provided most of the copies.

He was becoming very frustrated with me and said “go pay at the aduana!” He was going to get nothing for all his service! I went across the street and asked the customs official, but he clearly wanted to avoid any involvement. I asked what was a reasonable fee for services. He threw out the number 100 (about $5.50).

So, I returned to my preparation “specialist” and gave him 100 Limpiras. I think he still fleeced me. I suspect the permit should only have been $20 in total. I probably paid $10 or $15 too much. It was pretty harmless, and more just an educational experience. Still, the petty crooks are annoying.

Despite all the very poor people wandering around this border town, I was surprised I wasn’t more concerned about the motorcycle. But there was an officer minding the gate, and diners sitting right by the bike. Too many eyes. When I returned to it, I offered the remaining pineapple to the officer and an elderly gentleman seated nearby. They both gladly accepted.

The highway and bridges are still under construction in numerous areas, I had to detour through the muddy streets of small hamlets. (Apparently many were destroyed by Hurricane Mitch seven years ago, and they are still in the process of rebuilding.)

In Puerto Cortes, I refueled in a gas station overrun by police riding in several vehicles. They were strutting around in their blue gray camouflage and military-style sunglasses, some in full "S.W.A.T." team gear. Several were riding in a new Explorer (I think), its window darkly-tinted. An officer moved back and forth giving orders, supervising the critical refueling process.

Beyond Puerto Cortes, a toll road begins. I was instructed to by-pass the toll gates, riding along a gravel path to the left. No charge for motorcycles. Conditions looked even more dire in Honduras than in Guatemala (I had been warned that this was the case.) This East Coast area is industrialized, with many factories, but clearly not enough jobs for the population.

Nearly struck a man staggering across the highway. He stepped out into the right lane, in front of a truck. The driver broke hard, hitting his horn. The fellow, eyes closed, wobbling back and forth, then crossed into my lane. I came to a stop a couple feet from him. He then stumbled backward nearly stepping into me.

Less than a half mile beyond, a large bloated horse lay on its back alongside the right lane, legs in the air, a patch of dried blood running toward the median. It had clearly been dead for some time.

As in Mexico and Guatemala, you rarely see a man in the countryside who is not carrying a machete. It's the most basic requirement here. Being an outsider, to me they are quite intimidating. But I don't think they even give them a second thought. Of course, I continue to imagine one of these guys "flipping out" by the roadside and swinging the thing as I pass by.

There are signs of change however, as young people walking the shoulders, even in the most rural communities, are seen looking down at their flip-phones. No machetes in their hands.

Entering San Pedro Sula, I was struck by the prominence of American businesses: “Pizza Hut”, “McDonald’s”, “Burger King”, “Applebee’s”, “Texaco”, (of course, "Pepsi” and "Coca-Cola”) and many more. At a gas station, I bought some "cacahuates con chile y limoncito", peanuts with chili and lime, and yucca chips – much like potato chips. Both are tasty snacks!

Picked up some Limpiras from an ATM. An old gentleman stopped to admire the bike, then said “cuidado” (watch out), drawing a quick line across his neck with his finger, then making a clutching motion, obviously warning me that there are those who would kill for this machine.

Friday, September 23, 2005

At $5 a night, I had to stay longer...


At the other end of the pier, "Bruno's Restaurant and Hotel". Rio Dulce, Guatemala.


10:00 p.m.

It's amazing how quickly one can adapt to even marginal conditions!

Still hanging with all the ex-patriot sailors at "Bruno's" in Rio Dulce. I was sitting on the dining patio a while ago, watching coverage of Hurricane Rita, about to make landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border.

***

It has been a rather aimless, lazy day. I was up earlier than usual, 6:00 a.m. (The "jake brakes" of trucks rolling over the bridge and into town a hundred yards away helped.) Showered in the semi-private community baths, then sat down for some breakfast out on the patio. Another day, the same cast of characters. Things slowly begin to stir around the marina.

Steve, the manager, is having coffee and buzzing about. He seems tireless as he helps arrange tours and boat repairs, takes care of the hotel, offers visitor information and discusses local politics and projects. His girlfriend, Monica, is Guatemalan and manages the kitchen and bar. She has a beautiful warm smile.



Out behind the main street, Rio Dulce, Guatemala


It feels like I should be "doing" something, but another part of me just says "relax and experience this unique place." Before the other guests arrive, I have a chance to talk to Steve about the local area.

He says this river mouth provides a remarkably safe port in the West Caribbean. Many sailors come here to wait out the hurricane season. Some are embarked on circumnavigation cruises lasting years. "It's every retiree's dream, to sail around the World."



For me, life on the water is a whole different world.


I ordered some breakfast, and about half an hour later it was served. (Last night after dinner here, I ordered a brownie for dessert. 45 minutes later, I asked if the server remembered. "Si!" It came out soon after. It was fresh and warm. I think it was baked to order!)

I've started taking the doxycycline (anti-malarial) on a once-a-day basis now (rather than twice, as the prescription states.) This should allow my 180-pill supply to last the entire time I'm in the high-risk areas.

Based on both Steve's and David's recommendations, I started out driving toward Agua Caliente in the afternoon, but the skies turned black, rapidly! And the pavement ended. I was not ready to contend with a dirt road in the rain, so I turned around. Coming back to the intersection at the main street marketplace, I saw Rory and Letty hurrying back through the crowded streets with concerned expressions. I waited for them to approach. Rory pointed to the sky and said they needed to get back.

Went over to "La Lancha", another restaurant on the water. "Jessica", the owner, came down here from Minnesota "a long time ago". Of Rio Dulce, she said "it's a nice place to spend eight years." The menu is interesting. I sampled the white bean soup and the strangest ravioli I've had: the pasta tasted like rice pasta (perhaps it was.) But both were excellent.



Americans off to the marketplace


While I dined, a thunderstorm came in over Rio Dulce, lightning striking not far away. Boats continued to ply the waters between marinas around the area. Many of the locals just donned plastic bags for protection against the rain (which made me think of all the specialty rain gear we Americans "need".)

Sat down to "Happy Hour" with a bunch of French-speaking boaters, from Belgium, Montreal and France. Belgians Roger and Lucie are on their catamaran "Catmini" (which means "to sneak out"). Jean-Paul Laverdière and Danyelle Paré of Laval, Canada (near Montreal) are sailing the boat Jean-Paul built. (He tells of encountering 40-foot seas off New Brunswick on their maiden voyage.) I met another fellow from Canada (whose name I forget). He bought a boat in Australia seven years ago and has been sailing ever since. Then there's "Ed", who is from Texas. He is one of those waiting out the hurricane season. He'll leave for Panama and perhaps Cartegena, Colombia in January. All of them admit of knowing little about sailing when they bought (or built) their boats.

While staying over here, it has been amusing to see older men living out their fantasies. You see them with women (locals and foreign) young enough to be daughters, or in some cases granddaughters! As soon as a new wave of travelers arrives at the bar, the old salts will corner any unescorted young lady and try to befriend them. As some readily admit, it gets lonely on a boat.

Passed on the party tonight downriver at "Marios". Live music and a "Tex-Mex" cook-out, but it was raining, and I was comfortable here.

Rio Dulce Website: Link

Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Bruno's Hotel and Marina", Rio Dulce, Guatemala


This is what less than $5 gets you at "Bruno's Hotel" in Rio Dulce, Guatemala: a cinder block "dormitory". (I actually had to step outside to take this photo.)


Arrived in this town well after dark. A hotel sign advertising "internet" caught my attention and I pulled off the road into a muddy posada courtyard. An older gentleman came up in the dark and asked what I needed. When I asked if he had internet, he replied "Bruno's," and pointed toward downtown.

The streets downtown, wet from an earlier downpour, were crowded with pedestrians and lined with dimly-lighted market stalls. One must be constantly on guard for people walking along the highway shoulders or crossing the road, particularly at night, or in foul weather.

In the States, we anticipate this only in towns and cities, but south of the border, more people walk than drive, and you will find pedestrians anywhere, in town or out on rural roads, even when it's pouring rain. And the rain only slows activity briefly. As soon as it relents, the people flow back into the streets.

In the heart of the downtown marketplace, I asked a policeman for directions to "Bruno's". A young fellow joined in, quite uninvited, but he took the initiative to provide directions, then asked if I would require a water taxi in the morning. I followed his guidance a couple of blocks, then found him waiting to lead me through a muddy grove, cluttered with buildings and vehicles, toward some lights shining through.

I was hoping this was indeed to "Bruno's" he was taking me. He showed me where to park, directed me to check in at the restaurant counter, then repeated his offer to provide water taxi service.

I learned the hotel was full, but they had space in the "dormitory" for 30 Quetzales a night (About $5.00). With some trepidation, I asked to see a dorm. A stocky young man led me over to a row of cinderblock stalls with padlocked metal doors. Inside, on a dirty concrete slab, an old bed filled the tiny space. The painted walls were peeling and shabby curtains "sort of" covered the windows. It was stuffy, but the young man assured me the two fans worked. "I don't know..." My "guide" was hanging around, probably concerned about his commission for bringing me here.

"Mi moto...es securo aqui?"


He pointed to the gate and indicated it is locked at night. He added that if there are any thieves, "I shoot them", then pulled up his shirt to reveal the pistol stuck under his belt.

"Bueno."


I was still undecided as my two friends accompanied me back to the open air restaurant. The security guard pointed to the "specials" board and said the "Pepian chicken" is very good.

"Okay."

So I paid my $5.00 and unloaded the bike into my "cell", trying not to look too closely. An English-speaking fellow said I could park the bike in a shelter alongside several others. He was the manager and told me to put it next to his Kawasaki.

Took a table on the restaurant patio, which was a concrete dock, surrounded by boats. Sitting amongst aging, somewhat inebriated, mostly American and European sailors, I felt I had stepped into the world of Jimmy Buffett. At the next table, two men were drinking margaritas. I looked down and saw the pistol holstered on the fellow with his back to me. "Jeez! This is the friggin' Wild West down here!" The TV was turned to a music station, playing rock and roll from the past thirty years.

Ordered the Pepian chicken, rice and tamal, and a "Gallo" cerveza. Quite good. Still, I kept an uneasy eye on the gun and the two "gentlemen." (And this was just the only gun I could SEE.)

Spotted a familiar face at the counter: it was Rory, wearing a hat and poncho. I waved him over and he joined me. He and Letty were also staying at "Bruno's", Letty catching up on some much-needed rest. Over the next couple hours, I learned more about their three-day trek from San Miguel to El Zatz ("the bat") and then Tikal, and he related some of his experiences working on wildlife documentaries. Up past midnight.

***

Left El Remate around 2:00 today, after a parting photograph of my hosts. As David suggested, I took a ride into Flores, past the Air Force and Army bases. An interesting town set on an island in Lake Petén Itzá. Noticed an internet café on one of the backstreets, crowded with young travelers.

Before heading south, filled up at a new "Puma" gas station (the nearest competitor was called "Jaguar"). 80 miles down the road, I noticed the gas gauge down halfway. I watched it carefully after 100 miles, where it "historically" would pop back to full. It dropped to a quarter. Did they not fill it at "Puma"? Could they have simply charged me for two and a half gallons, but not have added any? That's the way it was looking. "They ripped me off!" How did they do that? I had been chatting with the attendants as one filled the tank, and I recall turning back to the bike and seeing the gas cap closed (I ALWAYS have personally closed the cap after monitoring the filling.) I registered it as odd, but didn't double check the fuel level.



The clear-cutting in Guatemala's tropical forests is astounding. Emerging from the relatively pristine forests of Northeast Guatemala, the landscape changes dramatically as grazing and agricultural consume the more densely-populated regions to the south and west.


I was anticipating the low fuel indicator, and starting to become concerned, when I came to an "Esso" station, (just as the rain started.) The tank only took enough fuel to make up for the miles traveled from Flores. So, it was the gauge, not thieving Guatemalans! I sat out a deluge under the station's canopy, drinking a soda, and trying to converse with the idle crew.

Once again, I was caught on the road as darkness fell. My mind expects the days to be longer, since, to me, this is summer weather, and summer connotes long days (in the far northern or southern latitudes), with the sun setting around 9:00 p.m., or even later. In the tropics, when the light begins fading soon after 6:00, and I'm still driving, a slight sense of panic sets in.

My wonderful hosts at "La Casa de Don David": Kelsey, David and Rosita.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tikal


"La Casa de Don David", El Remate, Guatemala.


Though it was suggested to depart at 5:30 a.m. and get out to Tikal to see it shrouded in early morning mists, I took my usual time and finally, after breakfast of banana pancakes, fresh orange juice and coffee, drove my unburdened bike out to the great Mayan city. A cool morning, refreshing. The road full of pigs, roosters, horses, cattle and dogs (dogs even sleeping in the road!) About a 20-mile ride out to the ruins. 50 Quetzales entry fee plus another 20 for a map of the park.

Tikal is Guatemala’s number one tourist attraction. Both the highway leading there and the park grounds are well-maintained. Yellow caution signs depict jaguars, turkeys, snakes, coatimundis and cattle. (Of these, I actually only saw the cattle.) Very calm conditions. No hawkers, no people approaching you with offers to be your guide. I set out on my own, which means clueless.

Found my way to the Gran Plaza, climbing around the damp and slippery limestone steps. From a narrow ledge, overlooking a very steep ravine, I was able to look out into the jungle canopy and see spider monkeys feeding on the leaves of what looked to be tall mahogany trees. There must have been a dozen monkeys in one tree. I was fascinated by the way they would swing from limb to limb, climb up branches from their tips, even let themselves fall, and with a crashing sound, catch the branches of a lower storey.



Spider monkeys in the canopy above Tikal.


Climbed pyramids V, IV, II and the pyramid of Mundo Perdido (Lost World), supposedly the oldest structure of Tikal. Only at Mundo Perdido do you actually climb the steps of the pyramid. The others have ladders, stairways and catwalks constructed of hardwood more daunting than the more than thousand-year-old stone staircases. Once again, I’m amazed at the risks one can take climbing on the ruins. You’d never be allowed to do this in the States.



Looking down the very steep side of "Temple IV" at Tikal.



The pyramid at "Mundo Perdido" (Lost World), Tikal. This is said to be the oldest structure at Tikal. The steps of each Mayan pyramid I've climbed are quite a stretch, more than a foot tall. So, just how big were the Mayans???



A little climb to the top of a pyramid? No sweat.
Behind me is a "Ceiba" tree, Guatemala's national tree.


The views over the canopy are commanding, and you can imagine being able to see the towers of other Mayan cities from this vantage. In the afternoon heat, the wildlife activity died down. Only an occasional monkey could be seen. Where do they go?



Tikal's pyramids pierce the jungle canopy and can be seen for many miles. I imagine this hill-top city once stood majestically above the cleared forests, like Athens' Acropolis.



They don't look like Mayans!



A portion of Tikal's Gran Plaza


Fortunately, a couple of stands inside the ruins offer beverages. Ice chests stocked with drinks chilling on block ice, the thirsty tourists crowd around to make their purchase. Though quiet when I first arrived about 8:30, by mid-day, there were many tours wandering the park.



Mayan stonework. Staircase at Tikal


After 2:00, I left the park and drove just outside the entrance to a Canopy Tour concession, where I had a ticket for the abbreviated, “11-platform tour.”



What tropical forest visit is complete without a Canopy Tour?


I believe I was their first customer today. This is definitely the slow season. My two guides fitted me with a harness and a pair of heavy cowhide gloves, then we climbed a ladder into a large tree, reaching the first platform.



Meet "Timtourist"


They briefed me how to prevent spinning and how to stop at the next platform, then asked if I was ready. One guide went first, disappearing through the trees, the cable singing. I followed and came out of the trees, dangling above the road. That must have been a pretty funny sight.



Like Tarzan, without the vines


At each successive platform, you climb higher, until finally you are at the height of the tallest trees. Among the tallest was a gum tree, where they get chicle, or chewing gum. Then the platforms gradually descend. It was very quiet in the canopy. We saw one monkey (which had to be pointed out to me.)

From the last platform, we trudged along a muddy road, a couple hundred yards to the entrance. (It seemed odd that they didn’t design it so the final zip line returned you there.) Having now taken the canopy tour, I can say I thought it was pretty “gimmicky”. After getting out of the gear and tipping my guides, bought a soda and stood around with the locals. I’m clearly regarded as a curiosity. They don’t know what to make of me as they stare alternately at me and then the bike.

Returning to my room, there was still no air conditioning. (David called a serviceman and offered to credit me the inconvenience, but I felt I had been compensated by being allowed to monopolize their internet connection.) A cold beer was welcome after the day’s activities.



The dining room is on the open balcony, "my" room directly below, near the center of the photo. (That's the least expensive one!)



View from the dining patio, looking out on Lake Petén Itzá


Caught up with Letty and Rory. Letty’s passport, along with cash and credit cards, had been stolen from their hotel room in Coban, and this threw a wrench into some of their plans. A replacement has now arrived at nearby Flores. They’ll move hotels this evening.



A great couple from Ireland, Letty Kavanagh and Rory Fallon. At home, they're part of the BBC team; on holiday, they're spending nearly two months trekking throughout Guatemala and Honduras.


Only three rooms in the hotel were rented tonight, so it was very quiet. Kelsey and David joined me at the dinner table. We discussed Kelsey’s coffee shop idea and hurricanes. They're planning a trip to Argentina's Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in November and December and suggested we might cross paths again. The dinner special, chile rellenos was not my first choice, but I tried it. Outstanding!

Started to do some work on the blog, but David and I got to talking and tracking hurricane news. Never got much done.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Relaxing at "Don David's"


Hibiscus in the garden of "Casa de Don David"


Turned off the 5:00 a.m. alarm and slept until 8:00, making up for the previous night’s deficit. New plan: visit Tikal tomorrow morning. Work on notes and preparations today.

At breakfast, I met retired Dr. Jim White and his staff from Baton Rouge, LA. They are working with the Red Cross. He volunteers at a clinic in Coban several times a year. I asked him about the anti-malarial medication I’m taking. He said you should only need to take it about once a week to prevent illness, not twice a day.

Reports are that the main highway to Coban is closed due to a bus drivers’ strike and conflict. They will have to take the long way around.

Trying to do some research on Guatemala now that I’m here. The trip planning didn’t allow much time for actually determining what to see and do. David provided some useful suggestions.

Monday, September 19, 2005

“La Casa de Don David”, El Remate, Guatemala


David Kuhn, proprietor of "Casa de Don David" in El Remate, Guatemala with one of his garden tenants.


11:40 p.m.

Just happened onto this place that apparently is well-covered in the travel guides. It advertises "clean rooms at good prices."

I took a room at $23 plus $4 for air conditioning. Included is a complimentary meal, either the dinner special or breakfast. The room, the least expensive here, is underneath the kitchen, but reasonably quiet and clean.

It was getting dark and I was beginning to stumble around looking for a place, driving 10 miles out toward Tikal, then turning around after finding only small villages with no accommodations. Wandered down a dirt road in El Ramate that apparently had some hotels along it; I found a young a couple walking along and stopped to ask them. From Belgium, they appeared to have done their homework and gave me a synopsis of the room situation in town. They mentioned this hotel, which I was already considering, having passed it by several times.

I was ready for some dinner, and went upstairs to the open-air dining patio. The menu states all vegetables are disinfected with “sanavida”. Started off with the national beer, “Gallo” ("guy-yo"). Dinner, a local chicken dish was very good. An amazing chocolate cheesecake for dessert, light and only mildly sweet. David Kuhn came over and joined me. "Everyone says I talk too much," he said. But I was ready to listen. David told of coming here from Florida (where he ran a small zoo) 31 years ago, starting a hotel business (first in another location he called "Gringo Perdido", the nickname given him by the locals,) and raising a family. With the violence in Central America destroying tourist business, he was forced to sell that hotel, but once things calmed, he started fresh. His wife Rosita creates the menu, and prepares the desserts.

At 9:00 p.m., David gathers guests together. There has been a request to see the tarantulas in his garden. Apparently, this is a long-standing tradition. Grabbing a couple of flashlights and a long pair of tweezers, he leads us out into the garden. Throughout the yard, there are rock walls with little niches, which make perfect burrows for the tarantulas. He knows where they are (he has done this countless times.)

The grass is wet from earlier rains and because of this, he said, they don't seem to be emerging from their burrows tonight. You can see some dark hairy legs protruding from a few, but his effort to draw them out with a long stem of grass, generally provokes little response. He's apologetic, but persists. Finally, he got one to attack the grass, and he lured it further and further from its burrow, until he could quickly block the spider's retreat with his other hand. He grabbed it by the back and lifted it up to show us its fangs. They clamped down on his tweezers. He remarked that she was biting pretty hard. "It's like a bad bee sting, if you get bit." But away from the burrow, they don't seem to bite.



This was a rather small tarantula that our host coaxed out of its burrow.


He then asked who wanted to hold it, and everyone who had been so enthusiastic a short while ago, now fell silent. It was the youngest in our group who was first to volunteer.



Do I look slightly uncomfortable?


After the spiders, and for those interested, David showed us some other features of the garden: coffee trees, tropical fruit, an allspice tree, lemongrass. Fireflies danced above the lawn, and mosquitoes hovered all around. I suddenly started feeling sharp fiery stings or bites on my feet and ankles (I was wearing sandals). In the dark, I couldn't see anything, but David casually remarked "probably fire ants..." Amazing, each bite is like a minor jellyfish sting.

***



"Caesar's Place", just east of San Ignacio, Belize. After a great evening conversation about esoteric teachings, I spent a rainy night in my tent.


Looking back on the day, which began at "Caesar's", I awoke to a very wet environment this morning. Everything outside soaked. Pools of water collected in the tall grass around my tent, and areas inside were saturated as well. It was so humid, clearly nothing would be drying very soon. I had slept poorly, in stifling conditions; at times I felt I couldn’t breath, it was so hot and humid inside the tent. Under such conditions a “lean-to” would probably be much better. Even though the rain stopped during the night, I didn’t dare remove the rain fly. Tried opening it up somewhat for ventilation, but the air was still.

At 7:00, the wood shop equipment started up. I crawled out and went to shower in the small brick outhouse (last night, Julian had some workers clean it out. “There are some large lizards that live in the bricks, and they make a mess.”) Cold water only, but it was fine.

A very good breakfast: eggs, sausage, homemade mango jam and fresh bread, coffee. I met a young Japanese woman working with the Japanese “Frontier Project” (like Peace Corps), teaching music in Belize City for two years. This is a land of missionaries.



A view north from the "Castillo" at Xunantunich.



From the "Castillo", looking west over the jungle canopy to the Belize-Guatemala frontier.



The "Castillo" at Xunantunich. The Mayan archeological site was remarkably quiet. Only two small tour groups passed through while I was there. The people who worked the few concessions below lazed about, napping, or quietly chatting.


At Xunantunich, my first encounter with a cable ferry, crossing the river to the archaeological site. The ruins were very quiet. A couple of tour groups came through while I was there. Virtually no one else. Just up river from the ferry crossing, I noticed women down on the river bank doing laundry.



A cable ferry, powered by muscle, crosses the river to the Mayan ruins at Xunantunich.



The boatman said, "look, there's a big iguana" pointing to a tree 100 yards away. I took this with a telephoto lens. Can you see him?



Now can you?


The Belize-Guatemala border crossing was simple: clean, well-organized. A nice big parking lot. No big deal. Then I learned this is still the Belize side! Had to pay a "departure fee" at Belizean immigration. Got some free advice as well: don’t travel at night in Guatemala. There are roadblocks thrown up by bandits and there have been rapes. The money changers are on you as soon as you stop. I held them off.

Before crossing, there is a "fumigation" of my vehicle: a fellow sprays something on the tires, then charges a few dollar fee. Next to Guatemala Immigration. It was hot, but I took it all at my own pace. No rush. I focused on the one officer operating the lift gate. He seemed to be the one to go to with any questions.

At customs, I had to pay a permit fee of 40 Quetzales. No other currency accepted. The changers are right there to assist, with what I thought was a pretty lousy rate, 7.25Q per dollar. (I later found this was a pretty typical rate.) Some young Aussies and a Kiwi, also going through the ordeal are not happy. Once through, I crossed a bridge, where an officer stopped me and asked for a toll of 10Q. Was it a scam? I wasn't sure.

Across the border, the roads are about the worst I’ve seen. I check with gas station attendants. They assure me I'm going in the right direction and say it will get better in twenty kilometers. It gets worse. Big pot holes and I take some hard hits. The taillight went out according to my warning lights. A storm to my left closing in and I'm crawling along picking my line! About twenty miles (not kilometers) later, finally some smooth pavement and I can pick up the pace.

The homes are colorful, brightly painted, tucked into the jungle and surrounded by tropical gardens. Horses tied up along the road trim the shoulders. I start to see women carrying baskets full of grain on their heads. Everywhere there are the roadside entrepreneurs, little stands in front of homes selling everything you need.

Turned off the highway at Macanché (I think), looking for an “eco-resort” that was advertised along the road. The muddy street was lined with shacks, no cars, and only one truck in the village. Many people were on horseback. Animals ran freely: chickens, pigs, dogs, cattle. Further on, I came upon some young men on horseback, two with old rifles, one with a machete. I was clearly lost and stopped to ask directions to the eco-resort. The men pointed back the way I had come. Reaching the lakeside, I was getting close. Women washed laundry at the water's edge, while men bathed nearby. "This is a little bit too much immersion for me! I don't think I'm quite ready for this." I turned for the highway. I didn't feel particularly welcome. Driving back through the village, a young man is wearing a t-shirt that reads “teach your children to worship Satan”. (What’s that about?)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Caesar’s Place" near San Ignacio, Belize


A young Toucan at the Belize Zoo.


I passed this interesting little place on my way into San Ignacio. The large "Internet" sign caught my attention. Still, I continued several miles to the border town. But I quickly determined San Ignacio was a little too rough to be looking around for accommodations at this hour.

It was nearly dark as I returned to inquire at "Caesar's". Julian, Caesar's son greeted me and said he had both rooms and campsites. A campsite was less than $3.00 for the night, and included a cold shower. I couldn't pass that up! He led me out to the back of their property, past the wood shops and several dwellings. (They produce hardwood panels and furnishings.) The campsite was just a relatively flat area in which they had poured some gravel. It was now overgrown with deep, wet grass. But I was committed to camping!

After putting up the tent, returned to the patio bar to spend a little time with the other guests. I met Caesar, his friend John, Julian's kids and the restaurant staff. Other guests were sitting together at a separate table. Caesar is from South Africa originally, his wife Belizean. (Caesar crafted the beautiful bar top, laminating together several types of exotic woods.)

Over a couple of beers, Julian, John and I got into a discussion of metaphysics, the Mayan and Aztec cultures (of which those two seem to know a lot, and I know virtually nothing), Rosicrucians (John was brought up in a Rosicrucian household and has been one most of his life!), Mennonites (there are several communities in the area) and George Price (Belize's founding father) among other topics. Both men are remarkably literate, especially Julian for his less-than-thirty years. He recommends reading The Lamb and Stolen Nations, two books he found particularly powerful.

***

Starting the day, I worked on the blog until 11:00, packed up and checked out, then worked some more, sitting in the lobby, keeping an eye on the thunderstorms coming in across the bay. Very hot and humid. Often times, I'm torn between writing and riding. And between taking side trips and the cost of such deviations (e.g. Placentia , a peninsula to the south, where Francis Ford Coppola owns property and a hotel, is supposed to be quite an interesting town, but it's a long drive off the highway to Guatemala.)

There is amazing interest in my motorcycle here. Lots of waves and thumbs up as I pass by. In the gas station, several people in cars stopped to inquire about my trip, wishing me good luck. Even at intersections, people roll down their windows and ask me where I'm going, and where I've been.

Throughout Mexico and here in Belize, it's common to see a family on a motorcycle. And helmets are relatively rare.

West of Belize City, I see the first hills since Palenque. In the air, I occasionally catch the fragrance of sweet roast coffee (like coffee candy). I don't know what foliage it is - it's not coffee trees – but it's intoxicating.



Belize Zoo is a very unconventional place, with a healthy dose of social and environmental responsibility.


Several locals recommended the Belize Zoo, and I'm glad they did! It's a remarkably unconventional zoo. I figured I would see here the animals I had little chance of seeing from the highway. Apparently Harrison Ford and Dolly Parton, among other celebrities, are supporters of this tiny zoo. I took a number of photos, which are better at conveying the amazing animals than writing about them.



Just inside the Belize Zoo





The coatimuundi is a creature I recognize from the Yucatan. It's about the only wild mammal I've seen south of Texas! (I saw them alive and dead along the highway.) A small room contained a reptile exhibit, and the incredible sound of an agitated tropical rattlesnake could be heard from quite a distance. That's one sound I don't want to hear while I'm out camping. They also have a "Fer de Lance", an even more deadly snake.



American Crocodile



Educating in a playful way...



Red Tiger, Puma or Mountain Lion; whatever you call it, I wouldn't want to meet her in the jungle.






These jaguars would sporadically burst into a wrestling match.



Black jaguar



"Nice kitty..."


After spending all the time I wanted at the zoo, it was an easy decision to pass on the ride to Placentia. An American couple I had met at the zoo recommended “Amigo’s” for lunch. A few miles west, it's an American-owned "shit-kicker bar", one wall covered with endearing bumper stickers (example: “I brake for animals. I eat them and wear their skins.”) This was my chance to try the Belizean "rice and beans" with stewed beef. The staff speak a musical mix of Spanish and Creole, along with the mandatory English. The food was simple but delicious, especially with their own killer hot sauce.

After lunch, a brash young lady, a friend of the manager asks "Are you going to give me a ride?” When I said there wasn't any room, she said told me to unload everything.

"You haven't seen me drive."

"That's my loss," she said and smiled.

I waved good-bye and headed for the hills.

Approaching San Ignacio, I pass the Taiwan Technical Mission, an agricultural project. And then the Cayo Deaf Institute. Unusual projects set out here in the jungle.