Monkeys and Migrants

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

We stopped at Guanacaste National Park to eat our picnic lunch, hike, and have a swim.

It was a sweet but sad place.  Like any state park in the US, it had an interpretive center.

The lone park ranger, Uriah, seemed pleased to have visitors. We used the bathroom, which was worse than the one at the gas station, then politely looked at the home-made displays.  There were no lights except for the sun coming in the window.  No lights, but there was a pay phone.

“You can hike,” Uriah said hesitatingly, “But many snakes have come up from the river banks since the rains.  It’s very muddy, and they hide in the mud.  Most of them won’t attack … unless you step on her, then she will bite.”

Our group was silent, for once. Then Jan asked, “Most of them?”

“Some, they are very aggressive, like the Yellow Jaw.  And she is very toxic.  There are many species of snake, but only eight are poisonous.”

“Only eight….” Stan repeated pensively.

“And where is the swimming?” ventured Mark, the eternal optimist.  I was wearing my swim suit under my clothes, dripping with sweat, and couldn’t wait to jump into the water.

“Ahh … I would not try swimming today,” Uriah answered. “The river is too flooded; the currents too strong.  It’s so muddy you can’t see the crocodiles.”

I’ve traveled a lot.  I’ve encountered many local guides who tell horror stories about venomous snakes, giant spiders, and large carnivores that will tear off your arm. Usually it’s just BS.  But Uriah was a serious guy, like a lot of park rangers.  If he was telling us not to hike or swim, I was heeding his advice.

People do get dragged away by crocodiles in Belize; this is an excerpt from an article in a Belizean newspaper about a croc attack.

“Dr. Mario Estradaban conducted a post mortem examination on the body on Tuesday, September 19th, which certified the cause of death to be exsanguination traumatic amputation of the upper limbs due to crocodile syndrome.”
Mark, being young, male, and probably believing he was invincible, tried to rally us. “I’m game for a little hike, if anyone wants to join me.”  The three men in our group disappeared into the jungle behind him, if for no other reason than to not look like wimps.

We womenfolk laid out the lunch.  News of the health benefits of whole grains and unprocessed food has apparently not yet reached Belize.  We were going to feast on sandwiches of soft white bread, cheese food slices, some kind of pork bologna imported from Germany, and tomatoes and cucumbers.  My sandwich, minus the bologna, was delicious.  That’s one of the things I enjoy about traveling; I give myself permission to just eat whatever is put in front of me, never mind how fatty, sugary, or processed it is.  We also had dried plantain chips flavored with cayenne which were delicious.

The men returned after about 10 minutes. “It’s too muddy,” Mark reported.  “It’s like, six inches deep.”  Mike, Stan, and Jessie, coming up behind him, looked relieved.

“Look! Monkeys!” exclaimed Inga.  Not more than a few yards away, a group of big black monkeys were swinging in the tree tops.  Everyone ran over to the clearing among the trees to watch the show.

“Yes, this is our family,” narrated Uriah.  “The mother, the baby, and six others who hang around.  They are Howler Monkeys but we call them baboons.”

I stood next to Uriah.  He was tall and thin, his skin greyish, his face drawn but with remarkable iridescent, olive-colored eyes.  He appeared to be about 45; he seemed weary, not the vigorous, outdoorsy type.  I asked if he lived nearby and he laughed ruefully.

“Oh yes, I live in the office,” he said.  “I sleep under the desk.  My family lives in the far north, in Santa Elena on the Mexican border but my job is here.  I only go home once a month.  My wife, she is sick ….”

We drove off, leaving Uriah to sleep alone in the dark with the snakes.


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

We had left Guatemala and were driving to Hopkins, Belize. On the way we would stop for a picnic and a hike around Guanacaste National Park, with the promise of a swim in the Roaring Creek waterfalls.

We stopped for gas and to use the bathroom.  I wondered about this cigarette brand:

I can’t imagine this brand going down well in Nairobi or Mumbai.  Belizeans must have a more laid back attitude toward their colonial past.

The bathroom had no light, no water, and no toilet seat.  There was a sign with detailed hand-written instructions posted over the sink that you could see if the door was open.  Since there was a line of people waiting to use the loo I didn’t want to hold them up so I only saw enough of the sign to know that it was kind of like an algorithm: If you were a man you followed the instructions on the left, women on the right.  Women were instructed to sit on the nonexistent toilet seat, not squat over it, which would result in pee all over the place.

The smell told me there had been many women who had not read the instructions.  It’s all about perspective, though.  I can say with confidence that this roadside bathroom was better than a similar one I used in Cuba, which had the added feature of an old woman who stood there while you peed, then poured a bucket of water down the toilet because it didn’t flush, and then asked you for a dollar.

There was more spine-crunching driving, but how can you complain when you’re sailing along the Hummingbird Highway through the Mayan Mountains?  The scenery was spectacular. It rained off and on and became more humid.  I love humidity.  Despite the fact that it makes my Restless Legs worse, it makes my skin soft and my hair wavier.  And looking good is what matters, right?

I was sitting next to Liz.  This was Day Three, and the first time I noticed that she nattered on nonstop about everything and nothing.  She had a curious way of repeating each observation.  For instance she would say, “I’ve never seen anything like that,” followed immediately by, “That’s something I’ve never seen.”  This was all in a southern drawl, because she was originally from somewhere further south than Cincinnati; Alabama, I think. The volume of her speech was also more suited to a noisy barroom than a quiet van.

What is it that makes someone need to talk—compulsively?  At first I nodded in acknowledgement at everything she said.  Once I noticed she was basically talking about nothing but just because she couldn’t help herself, I turned my head to the window to gaze at the scenery.  It felt rude.  But wasn’t she being rude by yammering nonstop while everyone else was trying to enjoy the peaceful views?  I fought the urge to turn my head back to her and start nodding again.

She kept talking, and talking, and talking.  She even said at one point, to no one, “Ah know ah talk too much!” followed by a forced, too-long laugh. This was when I remembered that—in my experience—people who talk too much know it, and they aren’t overly sensitive when people ignore them.

I stopped feeling rude.  I also avoided sitting next to Liz for the rest of the trip.

We stopped and shopped for lunch in a Chinese-owned store.  I didn’t take an official census, but I would estimate that 75% of the businesses in Belize are Chinese owned. Here are some items I found amusing, mysterious, or revolting:

Cashew wine!?  Industrial-sized cans of jalapenos?  Ramen, possibly containing real men?

Sadly, I was going to be home when the National Domino Playoffs took place:

I blame the power of advertising; the men and I bought Belikins and drank them while we waited for others to check out.  I jokingly asked Mark, “Okay if we finish these in the van?” and he said, nonchalantly, “Sure.” I have a feeling this was not official policy, but I didn’t ask twice.

Sounds and Signs

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

Exhausted, we arrived back at Don David’s.  There was no bickering between Liz and me; we fell onto our beds and slept.

When I think back on this trip, there are five or six moments when I said to myself, “That was my favorite moment!”  As usual, no matter how tired am, I awoke at 5am.  I got dressed and followed the bird sounds out toward the lake.  I was alone, and the sunrise, the topography, and the birds made me feel like I was witnessing the dawn of creation.

Until I heard the high-pitched, whiny roar of what we in Minnesota call a crotch rocket—someone was up before me, probably going to work on his Yamaha scooter.

But that didn’t spoil it.  I had experienced 30 seconds of serenity, with nothing but the sounds and colors of the world waking up.  Silence, peace, serenity…call it whatever you will…it’s so rare.  I can still recall this moment if I make an effort.  And watch the video I took.

At the end of this video you can see the mountain that resembles a sleeping crocodile. It has a name and a back story that I can’t remember, but local legend has it that it saved the people from some peril and now sleeps nearby in case they need him again.

It’s not just external things that distract us from moments of beauty.  I am programmed by habit to immediately think, “Food! Coffee!” upon waking, and today was no exception.  I ambled up the lawn to the lodge, to find Stan already there.

“Look at my list!” he exclaimed like a kid who collected baseball cards.  He was juggling an illustrated laminated poster called “Birds of Central America,” his binoculars, a notebook, and a cup of coffee.

I don’t know much about birds, but this morning I enjoyed watching them with Stan. “This guide says there are over 740 bird species in Guatemala!” I have no idea which ones we saw, but here are some of the funny names off of the laminated poster: Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Rufous-bellied Chachalaca, Pale-vented Pigeon, Common Potoo, Dusky Nightjar, Cocos Cuckoo, and the Greenish Puffleg. There must have been 50 species of hummingbirds alone.

There were clouds of birds around the feeding platforms.  I managed to snap these two little fellows eating bananas.  Who knew that birds ate bananas?

Too soon, it was time to drive back to Belize.

This time the border crossing was faster, and our young fixers were nowhere to be seen.  Maybe they were in school, uniformed with the money earned from us and other travelers?

It was still a slow process, and loading up on coffee necessitated that we had to use a bathroom.  I led Liz and Trudy on a search.  We found the right shack, one of the many little businesses that had sprung up to take advantage of the hundreds of people crossing back and forth over the border each day.

The sign said, “Toilet, $1.”  As an American, I am always grateful that my currency is so widely accepted.  For $1.00, you got an outhouse perched over the river that looked like the house made of sticks in the story of the three little pigs, and six squares of toilet paper.

The proprietor was trying to explain to Trudy where the toilets were.  “She’s deaf,” I said in Spanish, proud of myself for knowing the word for “deaf”, which is “sordo.”

He turned to Trudy and started signing!  What were the odds of that—that the proprietor of a bathroom business at the Guatemala-Belize border crossing would know American Sign Language?  We all had a good laugh, a good pee, and rejoined the line.

In real time, I have exceeded my limit for stress.  How do I know?  Because I have vertigo.  I feel like I am in one of those inflatable bouncy houses you see at kiddie fairs.

I can handle a lot of stress.  What pushed me over the edge was my decision to sell my condo.  I  can’t take the noise from the upstairs neighbors.  It would be a wonderful home for someone who is deaf, so if you know anyone deaf who is house hunting, please spread the word.

A Tip Says a Thousand Words

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

José Luis went with us to a roadside supper club where we feasted post-Tikal.  We were the only customers in the cavernous dining room.  There were party rooms and even a pool with a playground outside where people must have held birthday parties and other events.

I read the history of the place on the menu and learned that it was a chain. Like a lot of chains, they had gimmicks, like neon-colored drinks with lots of sugar and not much alcohol, and something like fondue pots that came out flaming and none of us knew what to do with.

Just my luck, their specialty was pork sausage, so I ordered the one chicken item.  It was way too salty, as was all the food.  But José Luis had chosen the place, the atmosphere and the staff were nice, and there were flush toilets.

The service was super slow, so we sat for three or four hours waiting to order, waiting for our food, and waiting to settle up.  Then we waited some more, because this meal was part of our tour package and Mark hadn’t known he needed to inform his credit card company that he would be in Guatemala. After many phone calls it was resolved, but it took an hour and a half.

As the sun was setting, we drove back toward Lake Itza and Don David’s.  We were exhausted, having been up since before dawn, walking all day soaked with rain, then ingesting a giant meal composed of fat, salt, and sugar and sitting around for hours.

But José Luis had one more sight he wanted to show us, the island city of Flores in Lake Itza.  None of us really wanted to go, but we respected José Luis and didn’t want to be rude.  Maybe it would be amazing. Too bad it would take an hour to get there.

Viewed from the mainland, Flores looked magical, with colored lights reflecting in the darkened water. We crossed a causeway and were there.  From the back of the van I couldn’t hear everything, but I think we were there because it was a tourist town, mostly for Guatemalans.  It had more restaurants like the one we had just left—we could see people drinking their syrupy neon-colored drinks on patios.  We could hear music thumping from hotel discos and see couples strolling around holding hands.  It probably was a nice romantic getaway, though a bit crowded for my taste.

We drove on to drop José Luis off.  He lived in a sizeable city which took another hour to get to, and he wanted Mark to drive around so he could show us that they had amenities like a stadium and a Walmart-like store.  I had money out to tip José Luis but he slipped out of the van unceremoniously and was gone into the night.  I asked Mark if he had tipped José Luis and he said yes, he had tipped for all of us.  It had been the same in the restaurant.  He wouldn’t say how much he had tipped in either case.

I knew it wasn’t Mark’s decision.  There were certain things he had obviously been instructed not to share with his travelers.  If I re-read the trip materials I probably would see that tips were included.  But I really didn’t like it, because tipping varies so much from one person to another.  Some people are unnecessarily generous and some are cheapskates.  Did Wilderness Inquiry have a set percent and if so, what was it?  And what were the norms in Guatemala, and what were the expectations of Guatemalans?

No one else seemed remotely concerned, and I didn’t care so much about the restaurant, but José Luis had spent a whole evening with us, then a full day and another evening. Was he saying to his wife right now, “Those cheap bastard Americans!  Eighteen hours of work for a $50 tip!” or “Honey, pack your bags and get the kids in the car!  We’re having that holiday in Flores I’ve been promising you, thanks to those wonderful, generous Americans!”


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

Finally, Tikal.

This was where I regretted being a cheapskate and buying a rain jacket at the Goodwill.  It looked like a rain jacket and—most important—it looked good on me, but it turned out to be about as waterproof as a burlap bag.

It was raining when we arrived and it rained for the first hour.  And I don’t mean drizzle, I mean full-on, relentless downpour.  I guess this is why it’s called a rain forest.  And this was the dry season.

There were no modern buildings, and only a few sheltered places, like the toilets.  But it wasn’t like I was going to get cold.  It was around 90F, so I made up my mind that it was just water and it wasn’t going to spoil my time in Tikal.

I don’t know what I had expected.  I have been to Machu Picchu and Petra.  Tikal turned out to be similar in scale to Petra but verdant like Machu Picchu, and of course completely unique.  We were there from 8am until 3pm, so I won’t try to retell all the history or describe the structures, society, or ceremonies that took place there.  We walked as José Luis talked, stopping here and there to really dig into something, like this stele:

These are some of the structures you may have seen in movies.

What I hadn’t expected was the amazing flora, especially the tree bark, which called to mind abstract impressionist art.

This is the (a?) Tree of Life.

This photo isn’t great, but it’ll give you an idea of how, high in the Tree of Life’s branches, there are air ferns.

You know, those little plants you can buy in the checkout line at the grocery?

Except that at Tikal, they were as big as tumbleweeds.

“And inside those ferns,” said José Luis, are growing other ferns, and cacti and other plants.  The birds nest in the air ferns and leave seeds in their droppings, which grow into plants.”

So the Tree of Life is host to ferns, which host birds, which result in other plants growing a hundred feet above the forest floor.  It was a “wow” moment.

Here’s another codependent but deadly plant relationship:

The vine uses the tree to reach the sunlight, in the process killing the tree, and then the vine dies as well.

We stopped at a gum tree and José Luis explained how gum was harvested and the history of Tikal and the Wrigley Company.  I have a piece of gum every day and I knew it had fake sweetener in it but I didn’t know that most gum is synthetic (plastic!) nowadays. [Note to self: research gum that actually contains gum.]

We walked through miles of hill-lined paths, which I thought were unremarkable until José Luis pointed out that the “hills” were actually unexcavated pyramids and other structures that had been buried under centuries of plant life and death. There would never be enough money to uncover all of them, but new technologies like lasers were being used to at least trace their outlines.

We hiked to the top of one of the tallest structures and again—a wow moment—what a view.  That’s me on the right, a snapped by Stan.  Everyone on the trip was very thoughtful about taking photos of each other, especially of the people who were traveling solo.

The last stop was the plaza major; there’s no way to capture it all so I plucked this aerial photo off the Internet.

As I wrote in a previous post, Tikal wasn’t a city, but a ceremonial center.  José Luis went into great detail about the sports played here.  They sounded tiresome, but then I am not a sports lover.

It was a very long day, like walking through the biggest museum in the world, a museum without a roof.  I had worried that my fellow travelers who had allergies, illnesses, martyr complexes, and possibly broken bones, would fade long before we reached the plaza, but Tikal’s magic must have sustained them. We rode in silent awe all the way back to Don David’s.

I Don’t (Do) Mind

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

Tikal would be a bucket list visit for anyone. This is from the itinerary:

“Tikal has over 17,000 stone buildings, most of them unexcavated. Our guide has a wealth of knowledge about Tikal and the Mayans—he helps you hear the roar of the crowd as if a Mayan king were making his entrance. From the scene of Temple V in ‘Star Wars’ to the growl of the Howler Monkeys, Tikal offers an experience like no other.”

At dinner with our guide, José Luis, he told how he had studied with professors of archaeology, anthropology, and cosmology at the University of California Berkeley and Yale.  “Study” probably isn’t the right word.  He had spent months at a time consulting with these professors in Berkeley and New Haven and had hosted them here. I don’t think he had an actual degree in anything, but so what—he was from the local area, had been a guide for 30 years, and had read and studied and consulted with other experts.  He was a seeker, curious, open minded.  José Luis was soft spoken, with a shaggy mane of hair and big mustache that make me think of Albert Einstein.  He was also that wisest kind of man—who knew there was much he didn’t know.

The rooms at Casa de Don David were basic.  A bare bulb hung from the ceiling, and the beds were so crammed into the small space I had to climb over the foot of Liz’s bed to get to the bathroom.  My mattress sagged in the middle and the pillow was lumpy.

“Are you okay with AC?” I asked.  “I don’t really like AC, but I’ve got Restless Legs and they’re always worse when it’s humid.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Liz replied.  “But we could just open the window.”

“Do you prefer to have the window open?” I asked.

“I’m fine either way,” she said.

“Okay, then I’ll turn on the AC.” I waved the remote toward the window unit above her bed.

“What if we opened the window?” Liz hinted again.

“You said you didn’t care either way,” I answered.

“Well maybe we could sort of open the window just a little bit.”  And so we turned on the AC and left the window open a crack.

The next morning we assembled at 5:30am in the lodge, gulped down cups of coffee, and inspected the bag lunches the kitchen had prepared.  The gluten-free people handed over their sandwiches and cookies to others.

Mike’s wife, Joan, appeared with a black eye and her arm in a makeshift sling.  Her hand and wrist were puffed up to twice their normal size, and horribly bruised.  “I tripped on a sidewalk paver,” she explained.  We suggested she see a doctor.

“Don’t worry about me; I’ve got high pain tolerance from my fibromyalgia.”

That’s good, I thought.  It would be really inconvenient if her wrist was broken and she had to be airlifted from Tikal.

We piled into the van with one extra person, José Luis.  Stan was a good sport and huddled in the luggage section in the fetal position.

As we entered the grounds of Tikal, José Luis warned that we must never, never, never wander off by ourselves.

“The jungle is so dense,” he explained, “that once you are a few meters in, you can’t hear or see the road.

“There was a German explorer who thought he would go of on his own, since he had climbed Kilimanjaro and paddled the Amazon.  He had a GPS.  But GPS don’t work here.  It’s a dead spot.  He was missing for four days and nearly died of exposure.  We have to rescue people all the time”

“How far is a meter?” Liz asked no one in particular.  “I can never remember my metric system.”

“It’s about the same as a yard,” Stan answered from the back.  “A yard and a few inches, I think.”

“Close enough for government work,” Liz said.  I had never heard this phrase before and didn’t give it much thought until the third or fourth time Liz used it.

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.