Category Archives: Living abroad

Jungle Jeanie’s

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

On the way to our next resort, we passed roadside wetlands with flocks of egrets, king fishers, sand pipers, and a half dozen other birds I didn’t know the names of.  Mark would pull over so Stan, our bird man, could check them out with his binoculars and add any new names to his running list.

No one minded the frequent stops.  We had been in Belize now for four days and were finally decompressing. This is about average, I have found. The first few days of a holiday you are excited to be there, meeting new people, weighing all the optional activities, adjusting to the heat, food, culture, and then—phoooooooph—like a balloon losing air, you collapse.  In a good way.

We arrived in the little town of Hopkins.  I’ve described how bad the roads are in Belize, the one road in Hopkins was worse than the worst of them. It took us 20 minutes to go one mile, and by the time arrived at our destination I had full-blown heartburn.  This is a shot of the road at night.

It was worth it.  We arrived at Jungle Jeanie’s which is—as the sign says, “By the Sea”—the Caribbean Sea.

We hung out in the lodge, which had indoor and outdoor dining areas and a bar.  In a few minutes Jeanie appeared.  She and her husband had moved from western Canada to Belize 20 years earlier.  He had died about five years ago.  She appeared to be about 85, frail and tottering but with a game smile that told you she loved what she did.  She spoke haltingly, welcoming us and assigning us to our huts, telling us the house rules (joke—there were none except relax and have fun) and offering us a welcome drink of fresh mango juice.

Jeanie had a staff of Belizean cooks and bookkeepers and handy men who had been with her for many years.  “We’re like a big family,” she said.

“And there’s yoga every morning at 9:00, although this week it’s only on Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30.”

At Jeanie’s I would not be sharing a room with Liz.  I would be sharing a room with Liz and Trudy, our deaf companion, and her interpreter Emily.  I made a beeline for our hut but Trudy and Emily had gotten there first and staked out their beds.

If you have any physical handicap, Jeanie’s would not be the place for you. First you walked across uneven paving stones set in shifting sand to get to the hut.  Then there was a set of stairs to get to the first floor.  If you got stuck up in loft as I did, that required climbing a very steeply pitched ladder and heaving yourself over a low wall.  I realize this is far from the worst “problem” in the world.  However, I immediately imagined myself falling backwards off the ladder in the dark.

Liz and I would be sharing the loft, a low, slant-ceilinged space with two mattresses on the floor that was hot as hell.  Liz had snagged the mattress near the ladder and I refused to play the game of “I don’t mind which one I sleep on.”  I would have to crawl over her to climb down to the bathroom.

Others among us were unhappy with the arrangements.  Inga and Jesse had been assigned to share a romantic one-bedroom cottage on the beach with Mark, our leader. He had a cot on the porch and would have to walk through their bedroom to get to the bathroom.  Stan and Stacy, who were married but not to each other, had been assigned to a one-room cottage with two twin beds.

Words were said in private. Perhaps some money exchanged hands.  The beach cottage dwellers were reassigned but Liz and I were stuck in the loft.

This is one reason why I tag my posts with “Budget Travel”

Liz and I shrugged and laughed and agreed it would be an incentive to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Night had fallen.  There was a full moon.  Life was good.

Signs and Wonders

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

We had a couple hours to kill before having dinner with our guide for Tikal the following day.  I wandered around the thatched-roofed lodge, which overlooked a broad lawn stretching down to the lake.  The lodge had the usual things you find in such places: piles of musty old board games, shelves with books in German and Swedish left by past travelers, wall-mounted maps with the “You are Here” worn away by hundreds of fingers pointing and saying to their companions, “Look, we’re here.”

There was a small gifty area with bags of coffee, cacao products, and beautiful carved hardwood objects.  I bought a couple pairs of earrings for $5 each.

There was wireless, but the signs providing the password were clear that it was extremely weak and that to be fair to others, no one should be streaming movies or playing online video games.

Bird-feeding platforms were mounted around the railing circling the dining hall, and although it was dark now and there were no birds I was curious to see what kind of food they used.  I reached the farthest one that was tucked in a corner, and noticed a man sitting at a nearby table watching me.

He was around 60, with a full, bushy beard not like a cool hipster one, with a baseball cap pulled down tight and smeary aviator glasses.  This look typically says—in my opinion—“I’m not good with people and if I could get away with wearing a mask, I would.”

He smiled at me in an encouraging way.  I am always curious about solo travelers in far-flung places, so I said hello. That was enough to initiate an hour-long lecture by him about Tikal, the universe, aliens, and how he was better qualified to lead tours of Tikal than the native guides.

His name was Brian, he was Canadian, and he had applied for one of the coveted official Tikal guide licenses.  “I would be the very first non-Guatemalan guide,” he said proudly.

He lived at a nearby B&B and came to the lodge for the wireless.  I noticed he hadn’t ordered anything.

He thought he would hear about the license the following week, but his visa was about to expire so he had to return to Canada and then come back.  He didn’t speak Spanish, so he wasn’t 100 percent clear on what was going on, and he suspected them of being partial to Guatemalans.

“I’ve followed the Guatemalan guides around and listened to the rubbish they spout,” he said, as our Guatemalan waitress came by and asked if we wanted anything.  I nodded enthusiastically and ordered beers for Brian and myself.

“The natives don’t know what they’re talking about.  They have no education or training; sometimes I think they just make things up.”

Brian had written books on Tikal.  Here is his card, which tells you everything you need to know:

If you go to the website on the card, you can buy the domain name for just $19.99 a year.

Brian was passionate about Tikal.  He whipped open his laptop and showed me elaborate schematics of the temples and their relations to constellations.  Of course I’m getting this all wrong because I’m not an expert.  Who knows, maybe Brian really does know more about Tikal than all the local experts and professors at McGill.  It must be painful to know all the answers and not be recognized for it.

I have a knack for finding one-way talkers.  Sometimes I avoid engagement; sometimes I give them 10 minutes to see how entertaining they are.  Tonight I had nothing better to do so I listened to Brian go on.  Eventually though, he got so deep into his theories that it was time to make my escape.

Just then, Mike helpfully wandered by.  Like an insect into a spiders’ web.

“Mike!” I said, “Meet Brian.  He’s an expert on Tikal.  Let me buy you a beer,” I said as I got up and went to the bar.

When I delivered Mike’s beer he was so engrossed in Brian’s story he didn’t notice I had abandoned him.

The People

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Here’s the demographic run down on who was on this trip in Belize. There was Mark, who I’ve introduced as the trip leader, who was probably 28 years old.  He had a man bun, wore braided leather bracelets, and had very, very dark brown eyes.  A few times I found him staring intensely at me, like he was trying to read my mind, but then I realized he was just spaced out.

This is where it gets tricky.  I’ve used Mark’s real name because he’s on the Wilderness Inquiry website so you could figure out who he was if you had nothing better to do.

I’ve changed everyone else’s names.  I told the group I write a travel blog and that I would be writing about the trip, including about them. After all, isn’t it often the people you meet that make the most interesting stories?

When I whipped out my notebook to jot down place names and such, people would ask, “Is that for your blog?” and I would answer yes.  None of them asked how to get to the blog, but if any of them ever find their way here I wouldn’t want them to feel trashed.  We were all being ourselves, even if some of our selves were more irritating than others.

Even though I write things down, this blog would never pass a fact-checker’s muster.  So you can take the following as generally correct information.

Our group ranged from 45 to 75 years old, so I wonder if Mark felt like a baby boomer baby sitter.  There were two married couples from Minnesota. Inga’s family was Latvian and she had lived there before moving to the Pacific Northwest where she met Jesse, who was Native American and worked for some tribal concern.  They had moved to Minnesota when he got a job at a big foundation.  That had ended now, so they were in a life stage of trying to decide what next.

Mike and Joan were suburbanites and newly empty nesters.  They had a daughter with autism, and it had been an exhausting journey helping her to become independent. They were “reconnecting,” as they put it, on this trip.  Mike did something in IT and Joan was a stay-at-home mom.

There were two married people whose spouses would have hated this kind of travel.  Bugs?  Heat?  Hiking?  No way!  So they came by themselves.

Stan was a soft-spoken retired postal worker from Pittsburgh.  “I’m taking my wife on one of those Viking River Cruises in Europe next fall,” he told us.  “That’s her kind of travel—white linen table clothes, shopping, and museums.”

Stacy was a retired band teacher from New Jersey.  She and I were both Jewish, and we joked how about how it’s unusual to have 20% Jewish representation on a tour.

The last member of the group was a never-married woman my age named Liz.  She was from Columbus, Ohio and had worked in the mortgage department at a giant bank for 30 years.

So that was us—pretty homogeneous—mostly white, middle class, and middle aged.  When you think about it, it’s people like us who have the time and funds to do things like this.

Trudy’s interpreter, Emily, was the youngest among us at 45.  She lived a few blocks from me, was married to a guy from Zanzibar, and had four kids.

If you’ve ever been on a group trip, maybe you’ve experienced this—you are immediately drawn to one person, feel repelled by another, feel neutral about a third, and so on.  Emily and I hit it off right away, probably because we had both lived abroad.  While others on the trip had traveled internationally, there’s a big difference between that and living or working abroad.

Which brings me to some current news: I’m going to Ethiopia for work!  I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that, and now I can.  It will be sometime in the next six weeks, so on top of planning my three months in Europe and the UK, this will give me writing fodder for years.

Kaukokaipuu

I don’t normally promote travel services, hotels, etc., but I would like to make a plug for a travel agency I used to book my flight to the UK.

You are probably thinking, “A travel agent?  Didn’t they go out with video tapes and big hair bands?”  That’s what I thought, too.  Everything is online, right?  Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak; there’s no need to pay someone to find your cheap flight.

But a coworker told me how an agent had saved him about $500 on a flight to Japan.  The agent and I went back and forth.  This was London, not Japan, so the savings were only about $50, but still—that’s $50 more I’ll have to pay for fun stuff.  If you’ve got an upcoming trip, feel free to contact Caroline at caroline.b@airconcierge.com and tell her Anne sent you.

I’m renewing my passport.  I always find it difficult to put the old one in the mail.  What if it gets lost?

I once worked in the HR department of a certain international organization, so I know how precarious it can get.  I would have to get a transit visa, for instance, for a Canadian public health nurse who was coming to the UK for orientation before traveling on to work in Kenya, via Dubai. She would mail her passport and extra photos.  I would fill out the paperwork, stuff everything in an envelope, courier it to London, and hope for the best.  If all went well, the courier would return with a transit visa and I would mail everything back to the new employee in Canada well in advance of her travels.  There were a few close calls, but the Home Office always came through.

Sometimes when we had leftover passport photos, we would talk about who we thought would make good-looking couples.  Coworkers who had been there a long time accumulated drawers full of photos, so we strung them together and used them to festoon our cubes.  This is probably not something we should have done, so shhhh….don’t tell anyone.

I went to Walmart to get new passport photos.  I hate Walmart, but you can’t beat their price of $7.50.  I was relieved when I compared my pics from 10 years ago to today; I didn’t think my face hadn’t aged more than 10 years.  I accept that I’m aging, but I don’t want to look older than I am.

I reminisced over the places I’d been in 10 years: multiple times to the UK.  Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Kenya, Dubai.  Guatemala, Belize. France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain.

I talked to my sister and told her I was thinking of summering in the UK.

Our mother and her husband were planning a move to a senior apartment building in April.

“I feel like it’s a good time to do something like this,” I told Connie. “Mom and Jim will be safely ensconced where they’ll have transportation and help if they need it.  Vince is out of prison.  You’re in the clear.”  Connie almost died of colon cancer two years ago.  She had just had her semi-annual battery of tests and been told she was cancer free.

“Yeah,” she replied, “By the way, I was over there today and they’re now saying they’ll wait to move until June.  They want to enjoy one more spring in their house.”

“What!?” I asked, “Do they realize they’ve signed a lease and they’ll have to pay rent for an empty apartment for month?”  Yes, she said, they knew that.

“I guess I can stick around through June, to make sure they’re all settled,” I said. “My remote work request isn’t official yet.”

No,” Connie replied, “Go—you should go.  If it’s one thing I learned from thinking I was going to die within days, it’s that you have to live now.  So go.”

A friend who is an artist gave me a handmade birthday card that said Kaukokaipuu on the cover.  It’s a Finnish word which means “craving for a distant land.”

I’ve always craved distant lands, but since Connie’s illness, Angus’ death, my mother’s frailty, and my son’s stint in prison, I’m feeling Kaukokaipuu on steroids.

Windsor Bound

I’m at a writing crossroads, having written 65 posts about my trip to Italy, Spain, and Malta.  Next up, Belize and Guatemala.  But first, some exciting news. I’m going to spend the summer in the UK.  Yes, the whole of June, July, and August!

It all sprouted, as many trips do, from something completely unrelated.

I learned that the guy I dated when I lived in the UK 10 years ago had died of cancer.  I’ll call him Angus.  He was only 55.  He was a Yorkshire man, so he had a great accent, and he was a maths teacher at the Jewish Free School in London, the largest Jewish high school outside of Israel.  He and my friend Sam were friends, and Sam introduced us.  We hadn’t been in touch for years; our relationship had been fun but not serious and we knew we’d never be able to live on the same continent due to visa issues.  He was such a crusty but sweet guy, if you can imagine those two characteristics in one person.

I was exchanging emails about Angus with Sam, who is originally from Bemidji, Minnesota.  And then he mailed and asked if I would like to house sit for him while he and his family are back in Minnesota for the month of July.  Sam teaches at Eton, the posh boarding school for boys founded in 1440 by Henry VI.  Sam lives in nearby Windsor, just west of London.

Of course I had to think about it—not.

I said yes, then got to thinking … why not take Lynn up on her invitation to let me to stay with her and Richard in Scotland?  August is a good month for weather up there.  And as long as I’m over there, why not try to get permission to work remotely, cut down to 80% time, stay the whole summer, and travel around on my time off? I could get to Croatia or Munich for a long weekend on cheap Ryanair flights.

I started making lists.  I could rent out my condo. What about my plants?  Could I invite a friend to visit me in Windsor?  Ask Sam.  Where would I stay in June—could I rent a canal boat on the Thames?  How close is Windsor to Highcleer Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed?  Forward mail to Vince.  Cancel newspaper.  Would I store my car?  Put in remote work request.

Late Friday afternoon, I impulsively went on Craig’s List and contacted the first advertiser I found.  A couple from Minneapolis who retired to Florida wanted to be in the Twin Cities for the summer to visit their children and grandchildren.  I killed myself cleaning and arranging things on Saturday so I could take alluring photos of the condo.  We exchanged a lot of emails, and one of their daughters came by on Sunday to see the place.  They wanted in, and my condo association management company would manage the rental so I wouldn’t have to deal with an overflowing toilet from Scotland. With a renter I wouldn’t make a profit, but I wouldn’t lose money.  Everything was perfect!

Except, I didn’t yet have permission to work remotely.  That’s when the What Ifs set in.  We have lots of people who work remotely. But what if I was the first person my employer said no to?   Would I file a grievance?  That would be awful.  I could ask for an unpaid leave for the summer—would they grant it?  Could I afford that?  What if they said no to that?  Would I quit?  I can’t afford to quit!  I would have to tell the renters the deal was off.  And around and around my mind raced.

In the back of my mind, I think I knew all would be well.  Looking at the facts, there was no reason my employer would allow other people to work remotely—from North Carolina, South Africa, Los Angeles, Arizona, Italy, Colorado.  But the mind wants to be in charge.  My mind wanted to have answers, to have certainty, even if that meant a no.

My request was granted–no drama!–so away I go.

Back to Reality

This is the final post in a series about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Our last night in Toledo.  We had dinner at a restaurant called Dehera d’ Majazul.  I don’t know what that name means but it sounded nice.  The food was unremarkable, but the waitress was memorable.  She looked to be about 18, she was very pregnant, and she had eyes tattooed on the insides of her forearms.  She spoke no English and I found myself looking at the eyes on her arms instead of the ones on her face as I tried to make conversation.

Not for the first time, I had assumed a person with tattoos would be rough and hard.  But she was sweet.  This was her first baby, she was very excited, and no, it wasn’t hard working on her feet.  Well, she was a baby herself, like I was when I had Vince. You can do anything when you’re 18.

The Toledo train station may have been the most ornate building we saw in all of Spain.  Here are a few photos to give you an idea.  I’ve got a a new camera in the works, so you won’t have to wince at my shitty photos much longer.

They screened our bags before letting us onto the platform, but the bored “guard” couldn’t have been bothered to look at the monitor. Really, what is the point of making passengers line up and hoist our bags onto and off of a conveyor belt?  I guess it was all for show.  Some politician in Madrid can say, “We take security very seriously.”

You would think the Spaniards, of all people, really would take it seriously, since Madrid trains were the target of terrorist bombings in 2005 that killed nearly 200 people and injured 2,000.

The arrived in Madrid in half an hour, and it was like going through a portal to another world.  We left behind dark, cramped, steeped-in-medieval-history Toledo for the sprawling, brightly colored high-rise apartment buildings that run for miles before you enter Madrid itself.

Naturally, the taxi stand was on the opposite side of the station, across a treacherously busy thoroughfare, and there were no signs for it.  We asked strangers until we found it.  The driver didn’t know how to find the hotel.  It wasn’t in his GPS and he seemed to have lost his map-reading skills—if he had ever had them—since like our waitress he also appeared to be 18.  He asked if we knew how to get there and handed us the map.  Lynn and I rolled our eyes at each other.

Eventually, after much muttering of mierda! and puta madre! we arrived at our hotel, a functional place near the airport.  It was only 5:00, so the bar and restaurant weren’t open.

We decided to go for a wander around the neighborhood, because unlike most airport hotels which are in deserted warehouse areas, this one was set in a regular neighborhood.

I quickly spotted a pair of blue velvet pants in a shop window.  “I’ve got to have those!” I exclaimed, pulling the door open.  “I’ve always wanted a pair of blue velvet pants.”

“Oh please,” Lynn shuddered, “Don’t say pants!”  Because pants, of course, means underpants to an English person.  It was a Chinese shop full of the cheapest, tawdriest clothes you’ve ever seen.  I loved it!

Next we rootled up and down the aisles of a grocery.  If you love pig-derived foods, you’d love this store.

I always buy Vince foods with funny names when I travel, and this time it was Bonka.  What a great name for … coffee?

Fancy some Chilly gel for your intimate places?  I love the literal name for stain remover—quitamanchas—“get out spots.”

Our final stop was a hardware store, which offered every size of paella pan.

And that was that.  We had a salty, fatty dinner at the hotel, slept, jumped on a shuttle at 6:30 a.m., and flew out in our separate directions.

In the bathroom in the immigration hall in Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, there was this sign.

Sigh.  Vacation over.  Soon, back to work raising money for torture rehabilitation.

Synagogue of the Virgin Mary

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Have you ever been in the London Eye? If not, it’s a super sized ferris wheel on the south bank of the Thames with a bird’s eye view of Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament and much more. 

Imagine, being in the Eye, watching yesterday’s terrorist attack unfold. The confusion, the fear, maybe some twisted excitement, the plain-old inconvenience of being stuck up there until thd police gave the all clear. 

Will this attack hurt London’s tourist economy? I doubt it. No matter how many of these incidents happen, most of us have the capacity to believe it won’t happen to us.  And statistically, it won’t, so keep on traveling.  

Day Two in Toledo. Today we would visit the Synagogue of the Virgin Mary and the Mosque of Christ the Light.

“I can just hear the Christians saying, ‘There, we showed ‘em!’ as they nailed up the new signs,” I said.

The so-called synagogue which hadn’t been a synagogue in hundreds of years was just steps from our hotel.  The website, which I won’t link to here, makes it look like you could spend days there.  It was lovely, but there wasn’t much to it:

There was a nun in the back of the now-church, and she sort of floated through the place and out a side door.  We followed her, since there was nothing else to see in the main building, and she went into a small out building which we entered to our regret.

You know how you walk into a place and immediately wish you hadn’t? The nun was there, seated behind a table piled with books and pamphlets and art prints.  The walls were hung with drawings.  The nun was ecstatic, in the original sense of the word, “involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I was raised in a Catholic family but never felt Catholic. I explored various religions and somehow knew I was Jewish immediately upon beginning to study Judaism.  So I’ve been Jewish since I was 18, which is a long time ago.  I’m also an atheist, which, conveniently, isn’t incompatible with being Jewish.

All this is background to saying that—having been schooled by nuns for 14 years— when I saw this nun I knew her type.  In fact, she was a dead ringer for Sister Mara, my 8th grade teacher.  I recognized the glassy-eyes, the never failing smile, and most of all, the enthusiasm to share what she had discovered with others, whether they were interested or not.

Fervently religious, or mentally ill? They are often intertwined, regardless of the faith.  None of this was triggering Lynn, who has neither Catholic or Jewish baggage.

The art, pamphlets, and books were all by and about some guy—possibly still alive and living in a monastery or cave in the mountains—who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism after having a vision.  He was an artist, a poet, and (naturally) a visionary, the nun told me breathlessly in Español muy rapido.

The art reminded me of Peter Max (example below), which made me wonder if her visionary also took drugs, but it was executed like my three-year-old nephew’s drawings, which feature people with pumpkin heads and tooth-pick legs.

It was better than I am making it sound.  I wish I had taken a photo to show you but I didn’t want to demonstrate too much enthusiasm.  The nun had moved on to how Israel was wrapped up in the vision, so it was time to break in and say, “Thank you very much, it’s been fascinating.”

Even the tiniest tourist attraction in Spain has a gift shop, and the ex-synagogue one had this on display:

As usual, the non-Jewish author had used a photo of an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall, instead of a picture of me, a much more typical Jew.