A Travellerspoint blog

Guatemala 2009, Part 2

July 19, 2009
Antigua, Guatemala

Bienvenida a Antigua,

This morning Manuela and I are in Antigua awaiting a minivan shuttle to Lake Atitlan. I reached Guatemala City two nights ago after two brief flights (3 hours to Houston and 3 ½ hours to the capital). A driver from the hotel was waiting for me outside the terminal, but it was Manuela that I was anxious to see after quickly clearing immigration and customs. It was great to see her waiting for me amongst the crowd. We spent the night at a Howard Johnson’s near the airport, our only pre-arranged accommodations because of my late arrival.

During breakfast at the hotel Friday morning (July 17) Manuela and I decided to take the camionetas (chicken buses, though I’ve yet to a chicken on one) to Antigua rather than arrange a private shuttle with the hotel. With some directions from the desk clerk and our packs on our backs, we took a city bus to el Trebol, where the intercity buses depart.

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Antigua Bus Terminal

We waited at el Trebol for a bus going to Antigua, which is about 20 miles away. If the camionetas, U.S.A. school buses in previous lives, didn’t have their cities colorfully painted over the windshields, they could still be identified by the attendant standing in the open door calling out the destination. The same man tossed our backpacks up onto the roof (we kept our daypacks and valuables with us) and we climbed aboard.

Our 45-minute ride to Antigua ended at the bus terminal next the market, where a kiddie carnival has been erected since our visit in November. When we decided to start our trip in Antigua, I thought about staying at the charming Posada Don Rodrigo, where we spent our last night stay in November. It’s a wonderfully restored 16th century home with beautiful courtyards and authentic furnishings. But Manuela and I agreed to stay at inexpensive hotels where possible. We stopped in at several hotels as we walked along – some were filled for the weekend, some too expensive – before settling on a small hotel situated on a quiet side street.

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Hotel Los Nazarenos, Antigua

The rooms of Hotel Los Nazarenos open to a small courtyard set behind a wall from the street. Manuela commented on quietness and I was drawn to the overstuffed furniture along the verandas that looked perfect for reading a book. When we inquired about availability, we were immediately shown a room on the second floor. It was small and sparse, but for $25 a night it seemed a bargain so we paid for two. The proprietor assured us there was hot water, though pressure was reduced after 10:00 PM.
We had lunch in some nondescript restaurant across from Antigua’s main square, Parque Central, then sat on a park bench to read and watched the people go by. In the evening we met up with Bill, an American who studied Spanish with Manuela in a mountain village a few months ago, and his recently arrived girlfriend Stephany. Together we shared a bottle of wine and Indian food. Bill, a native Pennsylvanian, and I discussed our mutual love of the Steelers.

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Temple y Convento de Nta. fra de las Mercedes

When Manuela and I returned to Hotel Nazarenos at 10:30 PM, we discovered that lowered pressure means no pressure – we had one toilet flush left between us. We also discovered the hotel wasn’t as quiet as it first appeared. The bells of Las Mercedes, a 16th century cathedral two blocks away began ringing at 6:00 AM and continued to ring every 15 minutes. In between peals, a cock crowed for those who hadn’t been woken by the bells. We knew the water was back on because we could hear a neighbor’s shower draining through the walls. Manuela and I agreed not to pay for more than one night in advance again no matter how charming the accommodations first appear.

Early Saturday morning (July 18), Manuela and I had early morning cups of café negra and chocolate caliente at El Portal Café, across from Parque Central. I had been looking forward to returning there for the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. Afterwards we headed back to the buses to find a camioneta going to San Miguel Duenas. If Deutsche Bahn (Germany’s rail system) is the epitome of order and precision, then Guatemala’s inter-city bus system (and I use “system” liberally) is just the opposite. The terminal is actually a large dusty lot adjacent to the market.

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Antigua’s Camionetas

Most of the buses line up in no particular order, while others seem to park where ever is convenient. To find a bus heading to your destination, you simply wander amongst them listening to the attendants yelling out their destination. Once aboard, you may wait a few minutes before departing or you may wait 30 minutes (Guatemalans have a different concept of time). Once we found the right bus we settled in and waited. We waited 15 minutes for the bus to start moving. We waited 15 minutes to get out of the lot (there are not traffic lights in Antigua). And we waited while the bus stopped every 15 feet to pick up another passenger. Next time we catch a bus out of Antigua we will wait at the terminal exit and jump aboard as it passes like the locals. Although the bus was nearly empty when we boarded, it was very full by the time we were headed out of town.

There seem to be few designated bus stops along the way; drivers stop whenever and wherever someone waves at them. Our bus stopped at the entrance to Valhalla, an experimental macadamia nut farm, for us before reaching San Miguel Duenas. Owned and operated by and San Francisco transplant and his Guatemalan wife, Valhalla grows macadamia for nuts and oils and distributes trees to the communities. It also boasts the world’s most beautiful baño (see photograph). After taking a tour of the farm and resting a bit in a couple hammocks with licuados (fresh fruit blended with milk), Manuela and I walked the remaining mile or so to San Miguel Duenas.

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Deo Optimo Maximo

The afternoon got very warm and humid, so by the time we reached the town, we were both very hot. We sought refuge from the sun in the Catholic church facing the small town square. Deo Optimo Maximo (the only “name” I could find on the church) is simply adorned inside but pleasantly cool. After sitting quietly for a few minutes, we noticed two black sawhorse stands setting up in front of the altar. Then in the distance we heard somber music slowly growing louder. Suddenly we realized it was a funeral march coming to the church. We went out to the plaza facing the church just before the procession, followed by an eight-piece band, came into the square. Manuela and I watched them until they went into the church and then listened to the ceremony blasting from the loudspeakers atop the church.

Being a small town, it was easy to find the San Miguel Duenas bus stop. We got on a bus to Ciudad Vieja and then switched to a bus going to San Antonio Agua Caliente, known for its local textile markets and hot springs. We wandered through a few shops and cooperatives but decided against visiting the hot springs. San Antonio is bigger then San Miguel, so finding the bus stop was a little more difficult.

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San Antonio Agua Caliente

Our search took us past the town square in front of a cathedral where a wedding was taking place, past a hall decorated for the wedding party and blasting music, past several small plots of pila (corn), and past the public wash basins. It is here that Guatemalan women hand wash the family clothes in stone sinks before laying them to dry on the ground. Eventually we found the right bus and paid just 30¢ for a 30-minute ride back to Antigua.

This morning (July 19) we are having coffee and hot chocolate in the Bagel Barn, which offers free wi/fi and shows movies on the whitewashed walls at night, and waiting for our shuttle. We could have saved $2.00 by taking the 7:00 AM motor coach, but splurged by arranging a later shuttle. I wanted to take more photographs of Parque Central before leaving Antigua, but it was packed with a Sunday morning crowd perusing the bookstalls and watching a foot race. At noon the van will take us to Lake Atitlan where we hope to find a room at the picturesque Eco Hotel Uxlabil in the small town of San Juan de Laguna.

Hasta pronto!

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Posted by SChandler 18:33 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Guatemala 2009, Part 1

July 16, 2009
Elk Grove, California

Where to next? Guatemala (again)!

I usually prefer to visit some place new when venturing out into the world, but tomorrow I’m heading back to Guatemala. There is still much to be discovered in this Central American country, but my motivation for returning after just seven months is to meet up with Manuela. She returned (from her home in Austria) in April to work for a non-profit organization aiding victims of Guatemala's past civil war. She has also been learning Spanish, which will help as we travel about the country for two weeks.

Our holiday will begin with a night or two in Guatemala’s original capital, Antigua, but the remainder of our trip is unplanned. We will look for some out of the way towns and villages and I hope to spend a few days in Manuela’s favorite city, Xela. We’ve talked about visiting Guatemala's long Pacific coast, from the tiny village of Talapita in the north to previously visited Monterrico in the south. With just our backpacks, Manuela and I will travel mostly by camionetas (chicken buses) and stay in hostels and other inexpensive accommodations.

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California's Pacific Coast Highway, February 2009

If you would like to follow along on our adventure and be notified of future entries, please "subscribe" by clicking the link to the right under "Navigation."

¡Véale en Guatemala!

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Posted by SChandler 00:48 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 7

June 30, 2009

June 30, 2009
Elk Grove, California

Willkommenes Heim!

Scott and I are home now. We returned several days ago (June 29), but I’ve put off this last blog until now because it was necessary to put a few days between our last hours in Germany and now so that I could write about it some perspective. They were very frantic hours, but with each passing day Scott and I can reflect on them with more and more humor.

The DJH Hostel in Lindau required an early checkout so Scott and I were up and packed early Sunday morning (June 28). Unsure if we wanted to return to Frankfurt for our last night or remain in Lindau and catch an early train back to the airport, we took the bus back to the Lindau Hauptbahnhof and stored our luggage while exploring this little lake island town. Down at the waterfront Promenade, we watched the start of the Lindau Klassik road rally and toured the lighthouse. We broke our vow not to climb any more towers but were rewarded with a nice panarama of the Lindau and Lake Konstance.

After enjoying the view, we ate a late breakfast at a sidewalk café while watching Sunday street performers set up. Within a few hours Scott and I had seen all there was to for us to see, so we caught an afternoon train back to Frankfurt. We had to change trains twice during the six-hour trip. Our plan was to be back at the Frankfurt Hostel by 6:00 PM so we could check-in online early for our flight home.

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Lindau Lighthouse

I refrained the past couple days from repeatedly checking with Scott to confirm he had his passport but, as we changed trains in Ulm, I finally gave into my parental nature and asked. He stopped to check his pockets but couldn’t find it and this momentary delay was enough to miss our connecting train to Frankfurt. Finding his passport suddenly became far more important, so we emptied his backpack on Ulm Hauptbahnhof Platform 1. He passport was no where to be found.

Thirty minutes later, Scott and I were on the next train and obviously frantic; I was very upset. We were back at the Frankfurt Hostel by 7:00 PM, less than 24 hours before our flight home. Scott googled the State Department’s website and discovered we could call the next afternoon for an appointment to obtain an emergency replacement passport. We were going to miss our flight home.

I double-checked our room at the DJH Hostel before checking to make sure nothing was left behind, but Scott called and discovered he had in fact left his passport in the room. They took it to the local police station; Scott confirmed that with a second phone call. His determination to resolve the problem himself helped ease my anger. We quickly shoved our stuff back into our backpacks, ran two blocks to the train station and caught the last train that would get us Lindau before they stopped running for the night. We planned to get to Lindau just after midnight, find the police station, then catch a 5:00 AM train back to Frankfurt.

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Lindau

Every train Scott and I rode had been on time, but when timing was most crucial, our train was delayed. Somewhere between Stuttgart and Ulm, the train was stopped on the track for over an hour. Finally we pulled into Friedrichschafen at 1:00 AM, long after the last connection to Lindau. We went to the station masters office to inquire about a place to stay and learned that because of the delay Deutches Bahn would pay for a taxi to Lindau. We were dropped of at the Lindau Polizei station at 2:00 AM.

The night clerk was pleasant, but when he told us they had not received a lost passport, I nearly cried. We waited anxiously while he searched the office a second time and found Scott’s passport; I nearly cried again. At 2:30 AM, we walked two miles through the deserted streets of Lindau to the train station and camped on the front steps to wait for the first train. Because of the last minute trip back to Lindau, I couldn’t check-in for our flight, so I called Manuela in Guatemala and talked her through the check in process while she sat in an Antigua Internet café. By the time we began our six-hour journey back to Frankfurt we were exhausted.

Somehow, Scott and I and his passport reached the Frankfurt airport at 11:00 AM Monday morning (June 29) – seven hours before our flight. Waiting at the airport for seven hours is not fun. Waiting seven hours at the airport after having been up all night is less fun. Waiting seven hours at the airport after having been up all night before an 11-hour flight is really no fun. We had breakfast, we slept in comfy Starbucks chairs, we wandered deserted terminals, and we slept in some out of the way chaise lounges. Despite the relatively late check-in, Manuela succeeded in getting us good seats and, despite being 11 hours, the flight home was one of the more comfortable long flights I’ve ever experienced. Scott said I slept like a baby. By midnight Monday, we were gratefully back home.

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Dom St. Peter and St. Mary, Koln

Our 12-day vacation to Germany was fantastic. If you enjoy ancient, medeval, WWII, and/or Cold War history, then I recommend a trip to Deutchland. It took a little time to figure out the rail system, but traveling by train was easy and convenient; the rail passes were a big saving. I won’t hesitate to stay in hostels again. Aside from Munchen, all of our accommodations were clean and inexpensive and some, like the CityStay, were fun. It was because of this hostel and the endless historical sights, ancient and more recent, that Berlin was our favorite city. Scott and I agree, however, that the Dom St. Peter and St. Mary in Koln was the most amazing sight of our journey. Thank you for sharing our Germany adventures.

Where to next?

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Posted by SChandler 09:08 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 6

June 28, 2009

June 28, 2009
Lindau, Germany

Guten Tag!

While wandering the streets of Lindau last night (Saturday, June 27) in search of a restaurant…any restaurant, Scott and I about going home. We miss our own beds, our own bathrooms, and our own kitchen. We had difficulty finding an open restaurant at 9:00 PM and being able to fix something to eat in our own kitchen would have been nice.

We returned to Marienplatz Friday morning (June 26) and watched the Glockenspiel which has three spinning levels. One is a celebration of a 1568 royal wedding celebration, an annual fete that has evolved into Oktoberfest. The other two levels are reenactments of Schafflertaz, a dance performed by locals coopers centuries ago to celebrate the end of an plague epidemic. While standing in the crowd watching the tolling of 11:00 AM, Scott and I overheard a walking tour guide comically and accurately describe the Glockenspiel as Europe’s most over-rated tourist attraction (“15 minutes of your life that you will never get back”). Having enjoyed the Berlin walking tour so much, we decided to join this two-hour tour which actually free.

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Glockenspiel

The first stop on the walk was St. Johann Nepomuk Church, which wasn’t even listed my guidebook. Built in 1733, the guide described the small Catholic church as the most elaborate small scale cathedral inside. It looked like a monkey went wild with a can of gold paint. We also visited St. Peterkirche, Residenzstrasse, where Hitler narrowly missed being shot by police while leading an anti-government march in 1928, and several other centuries old buildings. Like Berlin, the sights in Munchen are endless. Scott finally had his beer in Germany when the tour ended near the Hofbrauhaus, which was once the royal court brew house.

While planning our trip to Germany, I suggested to Scott that he research sights that would interest him, but he seemed content to let me do all the work. Once arriving, though, he regularly checked the guidebook and found a few places of particular interest to him. The Deutches Museum was one of them. Billed as Germany’s premier hands-on science exhibit, it appealed to Scott’s scientific interests; he even sat through a German language planetarium show. I decided to rest my feet and let Scott explore the museum on his own. He said I would just slow him down).

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Hofbrauhaus

Perhaps if we had started our Germany adventure in Munchen, Scott and I could have filled our day with sightseeing; but after ten days, we’d had enough rathauses and kirches. It was still early in the evening and neither of us was keen about returning to the hostel early, so we decided to see a movie. There are a few small movie theaters near the city center; some feature English language movies subtitled in German. We had never heard of Limits of Control, but it was in English and looked like an action movie. If there is an inaction movie genre, however, this movie should win an award. For two hours we watched the same scene reenacted over and over again (only the character’s suit color changed). I laughed in disbelief when the film suddenly ended with the screen flashing blank. I have no idea what the movie was about; perhaps those first missed minutes held the answer.

Both of the guided tours we have taken featured knowledgeable and entertaining guides. The guide for our tour Saturday (June 27) was anything but funny; but that was appropriate for the tour - the Nazi concentration camp outside Dachau. The camp began as a munitions factory outside the town during WWI but was abandoned after the Treaty of Versailles demand that Germany demilitarize. It later the first state run concentration camp, housing Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime, and became a model for other concentration camps.

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Dauchau

Dauchau was not a death camp and evidence suggests that the gas chamber was never used, but tens of thousands of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political opponents were murdered through abuse, malnutrition, and over work. The crematorium operated 24 hours a day to dispose of the victims until 1944 when they ran out of coal. United States troops found thousands of bodies piled in storage rooms when they liberated the camp in 1945. The emotion of standing where so many innocent lives were taken for an insane ideology is indescribable. I think the International Memorial, one of many memorials at the camp, says it best with two words – Never Again.

In the excitement of first arriving in Frankfurt, I forgot that one of our seven rail pass days was to be used to get from the airport to the city center. Buying separate tickets that day left Scott and I with an extra travel day and because I left the last two days of our itinerary flexible, we found ourselves pouring over a map of Germany searching for an extra destination. Lindau on Lake Konstanz (Lake Constance), caught my eye. The guidebook didn’t list much information for this town, but did mention that numerous past Nobel Prize winners gather there the last week of each June. That was enough to attract Scott.

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Train to Lindau

We left Munchen Hauptbahnhof in the early afternoon and arrived on the tiny lake island town by evening. We rode in our first train compartment and the six seat compartment we had to ourselves was just like in the movies, including the drop down window which I opened to get some pictures of the passing Bavaria countryside. The driver of the local bus we took from the Hauptbahnof was very helpful in pointing out where our hostel was located.

The DJH hostel was more expensive ($40 ea/night) than other places we stayed, but it was very modern and included a cafeteria breakfast. Our roommate in the eight-bed dorm, an older German gentleman, was very friendly. He was very talkative and outgoing; unfortunately he didn’t speak any English and I made the mistake of telling him Ich spreche ein bissen Deutch (I speak a little German). I don’t think he ever realized that I didn’t understand 99% of what he said. The rooms did not have toilettes or showers, but they were comfortable. And the DJH is smoke free!

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DJH Hostel, Lindau

Lindau reminds me of Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, California. There are lots of shops, boutiques, and restaurants with upscale hotels. One drawback of our hostel is that it is on the mainland, a 30-minute walk to the island. Rather than walk or catch the buses to the island for dinner, Scott and I decided to roam the hostel neighborhood for a place to eat…any place. After wandering for about 30 minutes, we finally found a Greek restaurant and had a delicious pizza.

Today we will wander around Lindau and see if what there to look at. We don’t have to be back in Frankfurt for our flight home tomorrow until early afternoon, so we are undecided whether to spend another night here or return to Frankfurt today.

Bis wir nach Hause wieder sind

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Posted by SChandler 11:17 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 5

June 26, 2009

June 26, 2009
Munchen, Germany

Guten Tag!

With the exception of someone snoring loud in Koln, Scott and I have been fortunate with our hostel accommodations. We arrived in Munchen (Munich) last night and our luck seems to have run out. The A&O Hostel here isn’t as nice as the ones in Hamburg and Dresden. It is dirty, crowded with high school kids, and on a very noisy street. None of the other four staying in our eight-bed room is particularly friendly.

After checking out of Berlin’s CityStay Wednesday morning (June 24), Scott and I toured the ancient Roman art & artifacts at Berlin’s Altes Museum. We spent the rest of the morning touring Schloss Charlottenburg, a 17th century palatial summer home of King Friedrich I on the outskirts of Berlin. Walking back to the train station, we found a grocer selling fresh fruit – something we had not seen yet in Germany.

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Schloss Charlottenburg

While waiting for the train back to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof on the local platform, we were approached a friendly German woman. When she learned we were from California, she told us about an American couple that stayed with her many years ago and regretted not sending them a thank-you note after receiving a basket of Californian fruit.

Scott and I got to Dresden by late afternoon and checked into the local A&O Hostel. Like the Hamburg A&O, the Dresden hostel was clean, bright, and run by a friendly staff. We were booked into a four-bed dorm with a toilet and shower, and ended up having the room to ourselves. We dinner at a pizza place across the street and played a few games of Ping-Pong in the hostel’s recreation room. The eighth floor day room had a wide view the first hills we had seen since arriving in Germany.

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Neues Rathaus

Scott and I have just about reached our fill of some-teenth century neo-gothic-baroque-renaissance architecture and museums. We loosely followed a self-guided walking tour of Dresden Thursday (June 25), but skipped many of the landmarks. We did walk around the historic Altmarkt, a plaza market that was once the heart of Dresden. From the tower of Kreuzkirche, we had a nice balcony view of the city. I didn’t count the steps, nor did I bother to ask; Scott and I agreed we are done climbing towers.

We checked out the neo-something architecture of Neues Rathaus and wandered around the inside Frauenkirche with about 10,000 blue-haired American tourists. Most of the church was destroyed during WWII and the repaired portions have been left deliberately unadorned. The contrast between the original and the new is obvious. Scott and I strolled along the Bruhlsche Terrasse, “Europe’s Balcony” overlooking the Elbe River and passed by the Residenzschloss with its 102 meter long mural depicting a succession of princes.

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Bruhlsche Terrasse

Although the train ride from Berlin to Dresden was just two hours, I paid the extra $10/each to reserve our seats. I also wanted to reserve seats for the trip from Dresden to Munchen, a six to seven hour journey, but the seats were not reservable. As it turned out, it would have been wasted money; the express was sitting at the platform 30 minutes before departure, so Scott and I had our pick of seats. After five hours through rolling hills we made our first train change in Nurenberg and reached Munchen by evening.

The S-Bahn (suburban trains) and U-Bahn (urban trains) in each city operate under the same system, but it seems many have their own bus and tram lines. Scott and I bought a three day/two person tram pass in Munchen and rode it to Marienplatz in the city center. We wandered around the square, famed for the Glockenspiel clock tower and ate some kind of wurst for dinner at one of the many sidewalk cafes. Today we’re going on a self-guided walking tour and plan to be in Marienplatz at 11:00 AM when the Glockenspiel comes to life.

Auf Wiedersehen!

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Posted by SChandler 22:33 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 4

June 24, 2009

June 24, 2009
Berlin, Germany

Hallo!

Our stay at the A&O Hostel Hamburg (June 21) was probably the most comfortable night in Germany yet. With just one other room mate and a bathroom, the only thing missing was a real pillow. I had to fold the long narrow one they provided three times to make a descent place to lay my head. The 10:00 AM checkout forced us up and out early. We walked back to the train station, stored our luggage, and walked to the one sight we wanted to see in Hamburg – the Rathaus.

Scott and I had our second “Wow” moment when the immense Baroque building came into view. I would like to give you all lots of information about the historic seat of government, but there were no English tours available that day (check back for more information after I have an opportunity to Google it). Scott and I had to be satisfied by wandering the grand entrance hall and courtyard along with several large groups of school age children. There are probably many things to see in Hamburg, but if I were plan this trip again, I would leave Koln early in the day, stop over for a couple hours in Hamburg, then continue on to Berlin.

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Hamburg Rathaus

First settled in 1237 as a trading post, Berlin’s history spans seven centuries and as many empires. When Scott and I arrived at the ultra new Hauptbahnhof Berlin/shopping mall, we got on an S-Bahn (regional train) and rode two stops up the line to Alexanderplatz, home to a dozen historical sights. Our hostel, CityStay was a ten-minute walk from the station. It is as big, if not bigger, than the A&O Hostel Hamburg but was twice as busy. Within the first five minutes in the lobby, we heard half a dozen different languages, but mostly English. Although the CityStay is listed as a fairly new hostel, the building itself has been around awhile. Our bunk beds (Ikea) were in a large eight-bed dorm with toilettes and sinks down the hall; showers were a bit farther. Bob, a 29 year old unemployed architect from San Francisco, was our only dorm mate when we checked in. He is on a three-month journey from London to Barcelona, where he hopes to stay indefinitely.

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Berliner Fernsehturm

By the time we got settled in it had begun to rain. We crossed a main thoroughfare to Berliner Fernsehturm. At 1207 feet, Berlin’s tallest structure is a bit shorter than the Empire State Building. The viewing platform is 986 steps up according to the brochures, but I couldn’t verify that because I gave up counting after 12 where the elevator was. The TV tower’s 360 degrees view of Berlin was amazing, and with our guidebook, Scott and I were able to map pick out some of the other sights we planned to see.

When we got back on the ground, the rain had stopped, so we wandered up Alexanderplatz to the 1891 Neptunbrunnen fountain and the 1860 Rotes Rathaus. It had gotten late in afternoon and we were both feeling tired, so we decided to relax back at the hostel. But around every corner, another hulking neo-gothic or baroque building appeared, which led to another, and another. There seemed to be no end of them. It past closing time for all of them, but we were able to tour the DDR Museum Berlin which features hands on displays of daily life behind the iron curtain

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Rotes Rathaus

Back at the hostel, Scott and I met another dorm mate, Tiego, from Brazil. He told us three Swedish women had also checked in during our absence. I left Scott to nap in the room and took my computer to the lobby to write. I returned a couple hours later expecting to find him sound asleep. Instead he was playing an animated game of poker with three Swedish teenagers. I think he likes staying in hostels.

You’re probably picturing three blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls saying something like “ya, ya,” a lot. But these three girls break that stereotype – one was obviously of Asian descent (Korean) and another clearly Indian; all three spoke perfect English with British accents. Thea, Cindy, and Jenny just graduated from a private British high school in Sweden and were on a three-week backpack journey across Europe.

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Neptunbrunnen

I’m figured he was disappointed to have Dad suddenly show up, so after a few minutes, I returned to the lobby and left Scott to his fun. Bob and one of the girls came down to the lobby a bit later and we talked about traveling for a couple hours. People have been friendly in every hostel we’ve visited so far, but this was the first time in Germany that I talked to anyone at length. A lot of young people were coming and going and hanging out at the bar all evening.

Bob recommended a guided walking tour he took the previous day, so on Tuesday (June 23), at the crack of Scott’s dawn (10:00 AM), we and 43 other visitors followed Barnaby around Berlin. Barnaby isn’t a purple cartoon mascot; he’s a tall tour guide from Wales. For five hours, he took us to all the sights we had underlined in the guide plus half a dozen more and told us their histories. His explanation of the 20th century split of Germany and Berlin and their reunification was entertaining as well as informative.

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Altes Museum

The tour started on Museum Island, home to many of Berlin’s 175 museums. The most well known is Altes Museum, on whose steps facing a large plaza was Hitler’s favorite place to speak to rallies. We crossed the Spree River on a bridge decorated by centuries old statues that were sunk in the river during WWII to prevent damage from bombing and visited the Memorial for Victims of War and Tyranny. A few blocks further along, we stopped at Babelplatz just outside the Alte Konigliche Bibliothek. It was in front of this royal library that Nazi’s burned 25,000 books in 1933.

Barnaby took us to Gendarmentmarkt, home of the Konzerhaus. To it’s right is Franzosicher Dom built by the King Friedrich I as a welcoming gesture to Protestant refugees expelled from France in 1685. In appreciation the, Huguenots built him Deutscher Dom, a matching cathedral across the plaza. Both were rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII.

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Site of Hitler’s Bunker

After a brief lunch break (during which Scott finally found olive oil and dish soap with which to wash out the wax of his abandoned attempt at dreadlocks), we visited Checkpoint Charlie (crossing between East and West Berlin), a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, and the parking lot that sits over Hitler’s Bunker. There is only one simple sign to mark the latter’s place; authorities are concerned too much display may become a draw for modern Neo-Nazi’s. Just two blocks away is the Memorial to the Murdered European Jews. Two thousand seven hundred and eleven monolithic concrete blocks of varying heights and angles are laid out in precise rows and columns. The modernistic display was created to inspire countless interpretations.

Our KM tour ended in Parisplatz, home to Germany’s most recognizable landmark, the Brandenburger Tor. Numerous conquerors have marched through this city gate, including Napoleon twice (advancing and retreating from Russia). Several Embassies and banks flank the gate, but the second most famous landmark on the square, the Aldon Hotel, is directly across from the Tor. It was from one of the hotel’s third floor balconies that Wacko Jacko dangled his baby.

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Brandenburger Tor

Scott and I would have seen all these sights on our own, but the information Barnaby provided was well worth the $15/each. After the tour ended, we climbed the spiral walk way up the inside of the Reichstag’s glass dome. The view of Berlin from this recent addition to Germany’s 1894 Gothic government building was fantastic. Security at Germany’s seat of government is tight and the guards looked at us suspiciously when they found olive oil and dish soap in my backpack.

I’m certainly no connoisseur of fine food, but I’ve always considered myself a bit adventurous when it comes to trying new and different foods; however, I like to have some idea of what I’m eating. Nearly every restaurant Scott and I have checked had menus listing their dishes only in German. Unless there are pictures, we move on, so we’ve eaten most of our meals at fast food stands in the train stations or shopping malls. Some of those have been American fast food, but during a McDonald’s lunch our first day in Berlin, Scott vowed that we will not eat at another American restaurant the remainder of our trip.

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Reichstag

We had wienerschnitzel at a café near the Reichstag and returned to the hostel very tired and a bit sunburned. After a nap, Scott and I had a late dinner at a nearby Turkish doner & kebop stand. The former is a burrito styled sandwich with shaved lamb, lettuce, and sauerkraut; the latter is very similar but served in a pita.

The Swedish girls had moved on, so our room was a quieter the second night. By turing in early I was able to get up early this morning and read quietly in the lobby. Today we will head out to the west end of Berlin to visit Schloss Charlottenburg, a baroque palace. Berlin is an amazing city, full of history. There is still much to see, but this afternoon we will catch a train to Dresden.

Bis bald

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Posted by SChandler 23:46 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 3

June 22, 2009

June 22, 2009
Hamburg, Germany

Guten Tag!

Apparently I everyone else reads the Station Hostel’s fine print and confirms their reservations by noon. There were no cancellations, so the first thing we did Saturday (June 20) was look for a place to stay the night. The desk clerk called several other hostels but they were filled, too. I was worried we might have difficulty finding an inexpensive place to stay on a Saturday night and I didn’t want to pay $200+ for a room at the local Hilton. We packed up and lugged our packs to the visitor’s center, where we given a list of hostels in Koln. The first two I called didn’t have anything available, but the third did.

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Rheinaufen Am Hostel

Rheinaufen Am Hostel, a long walk from the visitor’s center, is really a bar with two rooms on the third floor that share a bathroom. Our room was crowded with two bunk beds (Ikea) and two twins. But it included a television and I was glad we had a place to sleep. Scott and I stayed just long enough to stow our bags and we returned to the Dom for an afternoon English tour.

The origins of Dom St. Peter and St. Mary date back to 313, but the original church built in 870 and became the repository for the relics (bones) of the three Magi in 1164. Kept in a gold gilt chest, the relics drew pilgrims from all across Europe. Construction of the current Dom as a more fitting home for the remains of the Magi began in 1298. Funded by a steady stream of pilgrims, construction was halted in 1560 when money dried up (perhaps a medieval recession slowed the travel industry). Building restarted in 1842 and the cathedral was finally completed just 38 years later.

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View from Dom Koln Belfry

Constructed of hand carved sandstone blocks held together with lead mortar, the constantly eroding cathedral is in a perpetual state of repair and replacement. The twin spires stand 515 feet tall, though the belfry is only 97 meters high. That’s the equal to 538 steps, according to the brochure. I stopped counting at 15, so I can’t confirm the accuracy of that information. If you were fortunate to climb the Statue of Liberty as a child like me when it was still allowed, then you know what it is like to climb to the Dom Kolner belfry – one tall narrow spiral staircase. But the climb was worth the 360 degrees view of Koln.

Back on the ground, Scott and I took a 60-minute tour of the cathedral’s interior. The hugeness of the Dom is large enough for five or six individual chapels. Our guide told us that the head of the wooden crucifix in the Chapel of the Cross developed a split in 976 BC. The Bishop Gero used a splinter from the original cross to repair the damage and suddenly the wood became whole again. I expected the guide to offer us genuine pieces of the Berlin wall for sale after the tour.

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Chapel of the Cross

The story of the Chapel of the Cross reminded me of Mark Twain’s Innocent’s Abroad, an 1890’s blog of Americans traveling through Europe and Northern Africa. Each historical cathedral they visited claimed to possess splinters, nails, and assorted nuts and bolts from the true cross. By the journey’s end, Twain calculated he’d seen enough wood and hardware to make a dozen crosses.

The Dom has a dozen or more enormous stained glass windows, some of which took a lifetime to create. Many of them tell stories, pane by pane, and they were all removed during WWII to prevent damage. We were fortunate to tour the church during a brief period that many medieval tapestries were hung for airing. The most interesting was pure anti-reformation propaganda, showing Calvin and Martin Luther wallowing in the mud.

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Stained glass window

The Dom is Koln’s central attraction and the numerous other cathedrals and church’s pale in comparison. After the tour, Scott and I took a one-hour cruise on the Rhine River. I planned for two nights in Koln so that we could take a more extensive cruise down the river on one of K-D Lines many daily trips, but there wasn’t time. We should have skipped the one-hour cruise as well; there was little to see.

After the river trip, Scott and I wandered the Koln’s restaurant district and had dinner in a crepery. The pubs were busy again and I offered to buy Scott a beer, but he declined. Back in the hostel, where there seemed to be a party between the bar on the ground floor and a residence on the second with a lot of coming and going between, Scott found one English television station – CNN – and watched endless reruns of the same You Tube Iran protest video. We were over jet lag by then and stayed awake until 11:00 PM! Although the other room became occupied, we were fortunate to have our room to ourselves for the night.

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Rhine River Cruise

Scott and I woke up Sunday (June 21) to light rain, which seemed to pick up just as we were checking out of the hostel. Rheinaufen Am Hostel is only a 15-minute walk from the train station, but I splurged on a taxi because of the inclement weather. At the Hauptbahnhof, we locked our luggage in a machine that whisked it away to some unknown location until recalled and visited the Romisch-Germanisches Museum.

Koln, first established by Romans in 39 BC, was initially called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinesium. The large museum contains thousands of artifacts from these early settlers. Despite the wealth of history, the lack of information in English left me uninspired. Unless ancient history and/or Roman history is your thing, I would suggest skipping it. Far more fascinating is the EL DE Haus, about 10 blocks from the station.

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Romisch-Germanisches Museum

Originally built as an office building, the EL DE Haus (named for it’s builder Leopold Dahmen) became a Gestapo prison in 1935. The once crowded basement cells still bear thousands of inscriptions by citizens detained for weeks at a time while undergoing interrogation and torture. The pencil marks and scratches include ticking off days, pleas for rescue, and poignant good-byes to loved ones. The former Gestapo offices on the upper floors contain an extensive and detailed history of Third Reich presented in English as well as German.

By early afternoon, Scott and I had seen everything on our list except for Schokoladen Museum (Chocolate Museum). At the train station we discovered where all the Koln weekenders lived – Hamburg – which, unfortunately, was our next destination. When our train pulled into platform 19, everyone climbed aboard, reminding me of the mad dash my family and I (age 12) made across New York’s Grand Central Station one Friday afternoon en route to Boston along with half the population of Manhattan.

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EL DE Haus Cell

The train was pulling out of the station by the time we found two free seats together. Unfortunately, the family for whom they were reserved immediately bumped us. The rail guides warn you to check the little LED screens above the seats to determine if they are reserved. But they don’t tell you is how to interpret the signs – “Koln-Bremen;” “Wappertal-Hamburg.” Are those people? Cities? Scott and I didn’t know if the seats were reserved by the Bremens in Koln, the Wappertals in Hamburg, or something all together different.

Eventually we learned they were all cities between which the seats were reserved. Eventually Scott found a window seat open until our destination and I found an unreserved aisle seat next to a ten year old girl at the other end of the car. I was again reminded of that N.Y. to Boston train ride on which my mother and I rode on the open platform between cars, a brother sat on a suitcase in the aisle, and my father rode in the men’s lounge. I’ll pay the eight Euros to reserve seats for our 7-hour trip between Dresden and Munich.

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Koln

Once the seating was figured out, I enjoyed watching the farming countryside pass by. It was dominated by fields of low growing grain separated by rows of trees and dotted with brick and half-timber farm houses. We arrived in Hamburg early evening and it was raining again. The hostel seemed to be a 15 or 20-minute walk from the station, so I decided we should take a taxi.

I don’t know if we were lucky or if all German taxi drivers are particularly honest, but when we tossed our luggage in the trunk of the first cab outside the main entrance and told the driver were we wanted to go, he told us to simple exit the other side of the station and walk five minutes to the hostel. It took closer to 15 minutes, but I doubt we would have received similar advice from an American taxi driver.

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A&O Hostel

The rain lessened considerably by time we reached the A&O Hostel Hamburg. One of a chain in several German cities, the A&O was big and brightly painted, and seems to be managed by a efficient and cheerful staff. I had booked and paid for two beds in a dorm, but asked what it would cost to get beds in a private room. It would only be four more Euros so I asked to be upgraded. The clerk said he would be happy to move us; however, since the dorm was already paid for and the 48-hour cancellation deadline had come and gone, I would have to pay for both rooms. Did I say efficient? At €21, A&O is a bit more expensive than other hostels, but each room had a bathroom. We shared our three-bed (Ikea) room with Shay, an engineering student from North Dakota in Hamburg for a two-month summer internship.

It’s now Monday morning (June 22). I finally got the right power conversion/adaptation, so I hope to update my blogs more regularly. Today, Scott and I will visit Hamburg’s Rathaus today before moving on to Berlin.

Ich werde Sie in der Hauptstadt sehen!

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Posted by SChandler 12:20 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 2

June 20

June 20, 2009
Koln, Germany
Guten Morgen!

When Scott and I landed in Frankfurt Thursday morning (June 18) and stepped off the plane, we looked at each other and exclaimed, “We’re in Europe!” Despite being tired after 15 hours of over night travel, we were excited to have reached Germany. And with eleven days of sightseeing ahead of us, we had a lot to be excited about.

Our flights, 4 ½ hours to Washington D.C. and 7 ½ hours to Frankfurt were uneventful and bearably comfortable because I checked us in on-line as soon as possible (24 hours in advance) I was one of the first pick seats on the international leg of our journey and selected seats directly behind a galley, so there were no seats in front of us. The advantage was no one reclining back on us and we were able to put our feet up on the carpeted bulkhead. That is a lifesaver on long deep thrombosis-inducing flights. I read nearly all of John Grisham’s The Summons between the Sacramento and Frankfurt.

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Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof

The Flugenhafen(airport) is outside Frankfurt, so we had to take a train into town. The ICE (inter-city trains) S-bahn (regional trains) and U-bahn (subway) all pass through the airport. It took a bit of figuring out how to buy a ticket from the machines (luckily, all three lines operate with one ticketing system) but within 30 minutes we were at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (central train station).

One of the advantages of traveling by rail is that most stations are in the city centers, where many hostels are. Less than a block from the train station, Frankfurt Hostel occupies several floors of an old office building with a lobby overlooking a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants and sex shops. Our bunk beds (Ikea), thin foam mattresses covered with 25 count cheesecloth cotton sheets, weren’t particularly comfortable, but the six-bed dorm was clean.

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Romberberg

After getting settled at the hostel, Scott and I set off to view some of the sights of Frankfurt. Back at the Hauptbahnhof, we figured out the difference between the ICE, S-bahn, and U-bahn and visited Dom St. Bartholomaus (cathedral) and adjoining Romerberg (former city hall). Unfortunately the lower half of the cathedral was draped in scaffolding. The Romerberg faced an interesting square, but most of the buildings were leveled during WWII bombings and had been reconstructed.

Scott and I visited nearby Nikolaikirche (Old Nicholas Church), and Eiserner Steg. The former is an 11th century Protestant church named for the patron saint of water safety in hopes to prevent the nearby Main River from flooding; the latter is a pedestrian bridge over the river. We had dinner at a sidewalk café on the Romerberg Plaza. Despite the overcast skies, Frankfurt was warm and quite humid. The weather plus the long flight made us a bit irritable, so we were both ready to got to bed early.

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Alte Nikolaikirsche

Back at the hostel we met one of our dorm mates, a Danish engineering student in town for a buildings material exposition. Later, sometime during the night, an English-speaking couple came into the room. She complained about the free bunk bed, whose sheets hadn’t been replaced. They quickly left and never returned. And rather than disturbing our sleep, Scott and I found that the distinctive European police sirens that wailed by periodically during the night added to the atmosphere. When Scott and I woke late Friday morning (June 19), the engineer was gone and another man was asleep in one of the other bunks. We had a breakfast of cold cuts, cheese, and rolls in the lobby of the hostel with dozens of other travelers, most of who were fair-haired, blue-eyed young people traveling in a large group; although I noticed one older couple and three Asian women together.

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Frankfurt Hostel

After breakfast, Scott and finished our stay in Frankfurt with a visit to Museum Judengasse, a museum detailing a long history of German anti-semitism dating back to the 13th century when Frankfurt Jews were forced to live in Judengasse (Jewish ghetto). They were locked into the walled neighborhood by Christians on Sundays and weekends. The museum lies over excavated ruins of the original buildings. Afterwards, Scott and I walked back to the hostel via the Opernplatz (Opera House Plaza), collected our backpacks, and set off for Koln (Cologne).

Rail guides recommend paying a few Euros for seat reservations at peak times, such as weekends, but I decided to chance it for our two hour Friday afternoon trip to Koln. At the station, we learned we had our choice of trains departing every 30 minutes or so; some were expresses and some required train changes. After getting our rail passes validated at the ticket window, we easily found the right platform (there are over 20 in Frankfurt) for the next express. The train was nearly empty and Scott and I nearly had a whole second class car to our selves. We were in Koln by early afternoon.

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Dom St. Peter and St. Mary

Scott and I had our first “Wow” moment when we exited the Koln Hauptbahnhof. Just a stone’s throw away is the famed Dom St. Peter and St. Mary, more commonly referred to as Dom Kolner. We took one look at the towering cathedral with hundreds of intricately carved sandstone spires and we said, “Wow.” We took just a moment to admire the exterior of the 761-year-old church, before heading to our hostel.

Although I reserved two beds in a dorm for two nights at the Station Hostel, I failed to follow instructions and confirm our stay via telephone by noon on the day of arrival. But we got there by 3:00 PM, so I figured it was unlikely we would lose our reservation. From now on I will read the small print. When we arrived at the hostel, just a five-minute walk from the train station, we were told our reservation had been cancelled.

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Station Hostel

The English-speaking desk clerk cheerfully told us that they still had room for us the first night and that there were often cancellations, so we might luck out the following night. Scott and I found a larger, cleaner room than in Frankfurt but the six beds (Ikea) had the same lumpy pillows. The linen, however, was upgraded to 100 thread count sheets reinforced with heavy starch.

After getting settled in the hostel, Scott and I went back to the Dom. There was a service in progress inside cavernous cathedral, so we took just a quick look around the inside and walked around the exterior. It was early evening and most of the sights, such as the Roman-Germanische Museum were closed for the day, so Scott and I wandered up and down narrow cobble-stoned streets lined with crowded pubs and half-timbered houses. Along the way we passed a group of teenage boys showing off their skateboarding skills and large man passed out beneath a park bench. I guess some things cross all culture boundaries.

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Koln

Although Scott and I initially had the room to ourselves, the other four beds eventually filled in; the last at about 2:00 AM when two intoxicated Germans stumbled in and proceed to snore heavily. These latter dorm mates arrived without any luggage and slept in their clothes until noon check out. We learned that Koln is the Las Vegas of Germany; this was evidenced by countless bachelor and bachelorette parties we saw carousing in the streets.

I let Scott sleep late in the morning and took my book, Doug Adams’ The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to a coffee shop for an hour or so of quiet reading. Scott and I will hang around the hostel until noon hoping someone else failed to read the fine print and there is a cancellation. Today we’ll tour the inside of the cathedral and visit the other sights of Koln.

Auf Wiedersehen!

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Posted by SChandler 11:14 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Germany 2009, Part 1

June 16

June 16, 2009
Elk Grove, California

Where to next? Germany!

Tomorrow morning Scott and I are off to Deutschland – land of castles and cathedrals; a country whose history dates back to the Middle Ages; and home of Einstein, Beethoven, World Wars, and 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Over 12 days we will tour Frankfurt, Köln (Cologne), Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, and Munich.

As with all of our trips, we did not initially settle on Germany. I suggested a SCUBA dive trip to Central America or a Caribbean Island, but Scott wanted to do something different than the usual “tropical” holiday – he wanted to visit Europe. I looked into visiting Ireland (the cheapest airfare from California), but the more research I did the more romantic the Emerald Isle seemed, not exactly what we had in mind. Instead, Scott, fresh off his sophomore World History class, wanted to see the history and World War II sights of Germany.

This will not only be our first visit to Europe; it will be the first multi-city itinerary we have planned, including transportation and accommodations. The latter was an easy decision – trains. We have second class passes for unlimited travel on any eight days within a 30 day period. Many people told me that second class is quite comfortable and trains run every 30-60 minutes between our destinations.

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Germany

We decided to stay at hostels through out our trip. Although many of them have inexpensive private rooms, I booked us into six and eight bed dorms when possible. Besides being cheap ($25-$40/night), I hope the experience will give Scott the confidence to stay in hostels on his own in the future. The hostels I’ve reserved seem to be quite clean and modern.

It pays to watch airfares. When I first checked prices in March, the fare to Frankfurt was $1156/ea. I checked www.kayak.com daily and bought tickets when the fare dropped to $711 roundtrip. I should have been more patient, though – the price dropped to under $600 a week later!

We leave from San Francisco tomorrow (June 17) at noon and, after a brief layover in Washington D.C., will arrive in Frankfurt the following morning. Until then…

Siehe in Frankfurt!

Posted by SChandler 13:39 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Guatemala 2008, Part 1

November 24-30, 2008

November 24, 2008
Elk Grove, California

Where to next? Guatemala! I’m off tonight and will be in country for a few weeks to experience this Central American nation’s colorful indigenous culture and learn something about another part of the world lives. My journey begins with a few days in colonial Antigua, the past capital of Guatemala. Later in the week the group I'll be traveling with will head north through Lanquin to the Mayan ruins in Tikal and then down to the Rio Dulce and the garifuna Caribbean coast. From there we'll be visiting Monterrico, on the opposite coast, picturesque Lake Atitlan, and then Central America’s largest street market in Chichicastenango.

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Guatemala

While not on many top-ten must-see lists, Guatemala has been a popular trekker's destination for years because of its low budget travel ancient pyramids, and third world artistry and crafts. I'm drawn by the colorful culture and because it’s different than your run-of-the-mill beach resort vacation destinations. I want my senses, my perceptions of the world, to be challenged my senses by the places I visit. And already my Guatemala history lessons have altered my view of Uncle Sam as benevolent kin to its poorer relations in the Americas family.

Though Guatemala has been on my Where to Next? list for a few years, I didn’t immediately settle on this tiny nation of civil strife. Like most of my journeys, I settled on this Central American country in a round-about way. Initially, I thought to visit the Mayan ruins and colonial towns of the Yucatan Peninsula, but decided to visit some place more distant-Cambodia & Vietnam. Once I researched the visa requirements for the latter communist country (and the airfare), I found I could spend more time with fewer restrictions (and a lot less money) in this hemisphere and came back to Guatemala.

I will be traveling with the same tour company Scott and I traveled Costa Rica this past June. While there were some draw backs to traveling in a group of 15, Scott will not be joining me this time (sorry buddy, you got school), so I'll be more free to stray from the group and explore on my own!

Véale en Antigua!



November 28, 2008
Antigua, Guatemala

The world can at once be both incomprehensively vast and surprising small. One can travel all night on a plane without leaving North America, but run into an old friend in an out of the hotel on this southern end of the continent.

After another midnight departure from Sacramento and another nap overlooking Houston’s runway 3E, I boarded a flight to Guatemala City, sharing an aisle with a bilingual Wisconsin graduate student and an octogenarian Guatemalan. The senora was on her annual pilgrimage from her home in Canada to visit her children in the capital of her native nation. She prayed quietly to Dios as the plane rumbled down the runway in Houston and gave thanks to the same just before touching down in Guatemala City. I would have waited until we were safely parked at the terminal to do the latter. It was a rather rough landing, after all.

As Scott and I did upon arriving in San Jose, C.R., in June, I had no pre-arranged means of getting to Antigua 30 miles away or advance accommodations once I got there. But reaching this historic colonial town was nearly as easy as getting to the Costa Rican capital and, using the lesson learned in San Jose (see June 26, 2008), finding accommodations turned out much better.

I knew the taxis would make the 60 minute drive to Antigua for $35, but I was hoping out for something cheaper. As soon as I stepped out of the international terminal (it’s the only terminal because it’s the only airport in Guatemala) I was offered a $10 shuttle ride. True, I did have to wait an hour or so while the driver collected enough fares, but the time gave me an opportunity to meet a Seattle woman winding up a month long journey down from New Mexico and a Montana girl beginning a sixth month trek to the Panama Canal.

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Hotel de Campanas

My first task, upon reaching Antigua was finding a bathroom (a van and quaint cobblestone streets are brutal on a full bladder). Of course, I didn’t have any Guatemalan money for the public sanitorios, so I had to change some dollars first. ATMS aren’t nearly as plentiful in Central America as back home and online banking seems to be non-existent, so everyone actually goes inside the banks here! A fidgety fifteen minute wait later (a security with a pistol grip shotgun cradled in his arms eying me suspiciously all the while), and with a pocketful of the local currency, I gave the bathroom attendant two quetzals coins (US $0.26), received a wad of toilet paper in return (please don’t put the paper in the toilet!), and came away feeling much relieved and ready to find a hotel.

My mother was quite dismayed that I should head off to some third world country with no reservations. But that’s all part of the adventure! Determined not to repeat my San Jose blunder, I insisted on viewing the rooms before paying. The first place I stopped in at came recommended from my guide book, but this is the same book that suggested Backpacker’s Tranquilio and, at US $7 a night, I was a bit suspicious. It certainly was much cleaner than that Costa Rican hostel but in the end, I settled on the hotel where I’ll be joining my group this evening. Hotel de Campanas, on a busy street at the edge of Antigua’s central district, is a fashioned from a centuries old home with clean rooms, small bathrooms, and a quaint open courtyard. All that it lacks is a clean well lighted place to read. During my search for decent accommodations, I happened upon a passing funeral procession, a long low black Hearse rolled down the cobblestones of Calle 2a Poiente followed by 20 pedestrian mourners singing a low slow dirge.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised to see her when I stepped into the lobby of Hotel de Campanas. After all, she is a Central American tour leader and this is, well, Central America. Michelle appeared more taken aback than I when she turned from the front desk and slowly recognized me across the dimly lit courtyard lobby. She had just arrived with a group from the Yucatan Peninsula and was off to Lake Atitlan the following morning. We had only a few moments of time to catch up with one another; she grumbled about the poor evaluation she received from Miss Cranky Pants (see July 1, 2008) and asked if Scott delivered the bracelet she helped him choose in a San Jose market to a girl back home. When we parted, Michelle extended an underwhelming invitation to join her at a Los Angeles wedding in February. I suggested she come find me when her tour ends next week.

If Walt Disney wanted to add Colonial World to his amusement parks, he would do well to reproduce Antigua. It may appear, at times, like a Hollywood stage, but Antigua is no replication; it is an authentic 16th century colonial town.

Muy Leal y Muy Noble Cuidad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goethemala (Very Loyal and Very Noble City of Saint James of the Knights of Guatemala), long for Antigua, was founded as Guatemala’s capital in 1543. The wisdom of establishing the center of the conquering Spanish government between Volcan Fuego (Fire Volcano) and Volcan Agua (Water Volcano) came into serious question 230 years later when fuego and agua joined forces to create a series of earthquakes that leveled much of this cuidad. The Conquistadors moved the government seat 30 miles or so away to the more stable ground of what is now Guatemala City. Fortunately, some Antiguans ignored the decree to abandon their city and scores of historic sites still remain, though many in various ruinous states.

All of Antigua’s narrow calles and avenidas are paved with the original cobblestones, which seem to keep the traffic to a slow pace. Streets are lined with hotels and restaurantes and, homes and launderias, and dozens of internet cafes abutting the narrow sidewalks, also cobbled with the natural paving stones. Take care when you step off the curb to allow an opposing pedestrian to pass! Cars hug the sidewalks as closely as do the buildings.

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calle de Antigua

Like San Francisco homes built on sharply inclining streets, Antiguano´s homes adjoin one another, separated only by the varying shades of vibrant pastels (available in five gallon bucket of blue, yellow, or green for US $23 in the local market). Entrances to homes and businesses, gated with plain wood planks doors, often opening onto courtyards, some of which have been converted into beautiful patio restaurants and hotel lobbies.

Once home to over 30 monastic orders, a few of the centuries old cathedrals and convents still remain. Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch), built so nuns could cross over Avenida 4a Norte without being seen, is just a block south of their convent, Temple y Convento de Nta. Fra de las Merced. Much of this 16th century convent is in ruins, but it does boast the largest fountain in Central America (about 85 feet across). More ruinous and more interesting is the church on the east side of Parque Central - Catedral Santiago. Visitors are free to wander amongst the toppled adobe brick columns and explore the dark subterranean crypts.

Though Spanish Pedro de Alvarado and his militia were repressive conquerors when they invaded Central America in 1521 and enslaved the Mayans, the Spaniards knew how to plan a city, and like so many of their colonial towns, the center of Antigua is the plaza Parque Central.

Occupying a large city block, Parque Central is not only the physical axis of Antigua, it is the social center as well. Any time of the day boys are shining shoes for a few quetzales (wearing flip-flops discourages them from becoming pests), families stroll the walks, children are chasing each other around the towering jacaranda trees, and everywhere, young and old alike inhabit the many park benches. When evening comes and the many saints adorning the facade of Catedral Santiago are illuminated and lights recently strung throughout the trees create holiday atmosphere, young lovers begin to populate the more out of the way respites.

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Parque Central

While seated on one of these benches across from the large fountain that spurts water from four women’s breasts (that’s 4 women, 8 nipples), a charming street urchin tried to sell me a local newspaper. She casually strolled over, toting a stack of local dailies, and took seat beside me. No more than six, she looked up to me with bright eyes and a dirty face.

"Buenos dias," she said quite indifferently. When I responded likewise (I’m picking the language real fast), she asked, "Como usted?"

"Bien, bien," I explained (I’m nearly fluent) and she replied the same when I inquired after her. But the ángel periodístico added something else (the problem with asking a question in Spanish is the answer almost always comes back in the same language). She yawned, though, with her additional information, so I imagine she was telling me she was tired.

The littlest newspaper vendor stared off across the busy plaza for several contemplative moments, before saying, "dos quetzales," matter-of-factly, as if she was commenting on the weather. When I expressed incomprehension, she repeated herself while gesturing with the newspapers. I showed her my English language book, A Mayan Life by Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez, and tried to explain that I couldn’t read Spanish, but she looked at me unaffected and gazed back across the plaza. Another quiet moment or two later, the paper urchin stood up, greeted me again with, "Buenos dia," and sauntered off.

Antigua is renown for it’s many Spanish language schools where North Americans and Europeans come to for four hours of one on one daily instruction, often living with a local family for a total immersion experience, but I received a free lesson one evening in the Parque Central. While sharing one of those benches (no better place to watch the Central American world go by), Oswald struck up a conversation. After ensuring I didn’t confuse him with Lee Harvey, he proceeded to teach me a few phrases. I learned to count (I had uno through diez down, but after that I was a bit hazy) and explain where I’m from. Already I’ve forgotten how to tell an Antiguan that I was born in San Jose (de California), but I understood my waitress the following night when she told me the bill for my lasagna was treinta y cinco quetzales. Oswald shared, in his very limited English, that more touristas should learn the local language when they come to visit - an interesting opinion from a man who lived in Los Angeles for one year! No doubt I’ll forget much of what Oswald taught me, but I’ll never forget the evening an amistoso Guatemalan struck up a friendship in Parque Central.

Today is the biggest shopping day in America. I couldn’t find a turkey dinner last night and the stores here don’t seem to understand the importance of opening at 4:00 AM and giving away free mp3 players to the first 20 customers. Antigua is decked with festive decorations, but the warm sub-tropic sun is not conducive to

a holiday frame of mind. In a few hours I’ll be meeting my fellow travelers and tomorrow we head north to the natural wonders of Semuc Champey.

Compras felices!



November 30, 2008
Hotel El Recreo
Lanquin, Guatemala

One of the advantages of sharing my adventure through a blog is the ability to edit my earlier entries, and after a sleepless night in a new room, I’m going to revise my review of Hotel de Campanas. On the day my tour officially began, I was moved to a deep dark room at the front of the hotel to share with the only other male traveler in the tour group. The cavernous accommodation with four beds was feebly lit from 40 feet above by a curving black iron chandelier reminiscent of the one that hung in my childhood home. The light in de Campanas was twice the size but provided half the light. Apparently, Guatemalan accommodations are not designed for reading and writing. With a, with numerous hand gestures and a smattering of Spanish, I asked the desk clerk for an extra light. I was pleased when she arrived a few minutes later with a table lamp...pleased until she plugged it in next to my bed and turned it on. With a mere 25 watt compact fluorescent bulb, the lamp’s light was completely washed out by the mega 40 watters overhead. I gave up and headed off to the Parque Central in search of a clean well-lighted park bench.

My roommate for the next 16 days arrived from Manchester, England, by the time I returned to de Campanas. Earlier I learned that Ed would be the only other male traveler along with eight women. I was hoping I would be the only male in the group. I know, some of you (Amy & Tina) are thinking, "He doesn’t want the competition for attention from all those ladies!" My reasons for wanting to be the sole male were completely different, however (though no less selfish). Aside from traveling with Scott, I haven’t had to share a room and bathroom with another person in many years. I know, some of you (Amy & Tina) are thinking, "He’s been single too long!" Ed and I hit it off immediately and were soon sharing favorite English authors, although he did chide me for being an Agatha Christie fan, equating her mysteries to pulp fiction. Nonetheless, he seems to be an accommodating chap and I think we will get along well. After meeting the ladies in the group and our French Canandian leader, Steve, and going over his rules – no weather questions – we set off on foot for a restaurant featuring live jazz and traditional Guatemalan fare.

A friend wondered aloud, before I left home, if this group would include a "Brooke" (see June 29, 2008). I feared it would not, because, as the saying goes, "There’s one in every group and if you don’t recognize who it is, then its you!" Ed’s fellow Brit, Denise, seems to be the likely candidate for the interminably fretful traveler with endless questions. Is it cold at Lake Atitlan? How much money do I need? Will they take U.S. dollars? She even raised concerns about confirming her departure flight in sixteen days! These may seem like common queries, but they seemed a bit unusual from a woman who claims to have been traveling the world for the past 60 years.

A bit slower paced than the others, Denise quickly fell behind the group during the eight block walk to the restaurant. I decided not to fall into that group-think syndrome that ostracized Brooke in Costa Rica and fell behind with her. Denise kept up such a constant monologue (about what I don’t know because of her thick British accent) I think it was some time before she realized we lost track of the others. We suddenly found ourselves on the corner of Avenida 5a Sur and Calle 1a Poiente with no clue which way Steve had taken the group. It took a bit of persuading, mostly because Denise wouldn’t stop talking, but I convinced her to continue down Avenida 5a, and just as she was suggesting we simply find a restaurant and have dinner by ourselves, Steve reappeared from out of the dark and ushered us into the Rainbow Reading Room.

Everyone else was already arranged around the table when I arrived, so I took the last available seat, near where Manuela, Meredith, and Carolina sat quietly. I did my best to engage the Austrian and French Canadians, respectively, they seemed reluctant to converse. Meanwhile, the chatter and laughs at the other end of the table from the two Irish architects, Joy Anne and Katrina, Ed and his fellow Brit, Wendy, and my only compatriot, Missy, filled the restaurant.

After a después de cena stroll through Parque Central, Ed and I retired to our dungeon for a sleepless night. I don’t know if it was the excitement of the trip or the fresh tomatoes at dinner, but I tossed and turned in my narrow bed all night while my stomach tossed and turned in me. The endless caravan of chicken buses returning from distant district villages rumbling down de Campanas´s busy thoroughfare certainly was not helpful. The only thing separating me from the Antiguans passing on the sidewalk outside as I tossed and turned in my bed, was six inches of adobe brick; another 24 inches of cobblestone sidewalk is all that kept the traffic from removing the first barrier. Neither obstacle was effective in keeping the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-esque chicken buses from shaking my bed like a fuego y agua earthquake!

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Coban

An hour before our departure for Lanquin yesterday morning, I visited several ATMs around the Antigua plaza for one that would accept my card. One finally did. The ATM not only accepted my card, it asked for my PIN, how many quetzales I wanted, and whether to deduct it from my checking or savings account. The machine even gave me a nice receipt thanking me for the transaction. The only thing it didn’t do, though, is give me any quetzales!

It’s no secret that the wise civic planners of Antigua didn’t pass on their plans to the men and women who established Guatemala City 200 years later. Our eight hour drive to Lanquin included two just to get through the new capital! A couple hours after leaving the freeway-less traffic choked center behind, our van slowly climbed into shrub and pine forests that reminded me of the Sierra Nevada Mountains back home. Here, though, there were small plots of corn everywhere - on steep hillsides, among rocky pastures, and just about everywhere a Mayan could plant a kernel of maize. Around one of the innumerable bends in the highway above the city of Coban, the rolling hills erupted suddenly into an endless string of violent mountain with jagged peaks serrated by dense green canopies and separated by deep misty valleys. The southern lowlands ended at that turn and with it the end of the pavement.

Back home, when two opposing cars encounter one another on a narrow mountain road, the car going down yields. In Guatemala, the right of way is given to the vehicle with the greater firepower. While creeping down long steep rocky road into Lanquin, our van yielded to an on-coming truck full of locals standing in the open bed because that driver’s front seat companion had a pistol grip shotgun hanging out the side window. All Steve was armed with up front beside our driver was a really nice camera.

It took three hours longer than expected to reach Lanquin, but the potential for a much needed quiet night’s sleep immediately presented itself when we alighted from the van at Hotel La Recreo; the nearest sounds didn’t rise above some over active crickets and an amorous bull frog. A short walk down from Lanquin, La Recreo appears to be a clean cold-water pseudo jungle lodge, despite leaches squirming across the shower floor and scorpion scaling bedroom walls.

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local transportation

When the sun set in this valley, we walked a mile down the road to explore the humid depths of a cave as colony of bats began their evening exodus. While gathered at the entrance, the local guide turned out the lights and plunged us into absolute darkness. In the artificial light, hundreds of bats darted over us out into the night; in the darkness, hundreds became thousands. Unseen, the vast numbers of tiny nocturnal creatures created an outward breeze that gently washed over my outstretched arms. As the unreal sensation seeped into the nervous chatterers among, eventually quieting them, the quiet screeches of the bats slowly filled the air. Just as quickly as the cave became black, the lights returned, illuminating the aerial flow of those denizens of the night darting out into the Guatemalan night.

After dinner in the lodge, a number of us adjourned to a tin roofed gazebo next to the pond water pool criss-crossed with several hammocks. The lasses, Missy, and Wendy took up occupancy in the slings, Ed and I served out cheap rum (Barrilito) and cheaper cola (Supra Cola!) and we all drank and laughed at Steve´s stupid tour leader jokes (this tour leader walks into a bar in Guatemala...) well into the night

I don’t know if it was the soothing jungle sounds floating in through the chicken wire walls of our room or my sheer exhaustion (Missy said it was the rum), but I slept one of the soundest, restive nights in a long time last night. I woke up early, ready to continue discovering Guatemala. I slipped out of the room just as the sun was filling the valley with my new book, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, excited about finding a cup of coffee and a quiet hammock.

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Lanquin bat cave

I’ve enjoyed getting to know my travel mates the past day or so. Ed and Wendy are giving me an education in all things British and Joy Anne and Katrina are teaching me the difference between Ireland and their home, Northern Ireland. There have been a few lively debates about regarding the relative merits of European football and American football; though the Europeans have Missy and I outnumbered six to two. French-Canadians Madeline and Caroline seem reluctant to enter the fray. Today we’re all headed off to the natural pools of Semuc Champey.

¡Vaya Steelers!

Posted by SChandler 14:36 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Guatemala 2008, Part 2

December 3-7, 2008

December 3, 2008
Central Plaza
Flores, Guatemala

The sun is just beginning to give light over this tiny island town, first built by Mayans in the 13th century on northern Guatemala’s Lago Peten Itza, but already the birds have raised a cacophony of squawks and caws in the plaza palms trees above sure to wake the homeless man sleeping in the nearby church doorway. Although the sound level has not diminished from last night, the activity in Flores’s central plaza has moved from the ball courts and blacktop to the trees.

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the ride to Semuc Champey

After parting with the Seattle school teacher at Hotel La Recreo, the group climbed into the back of an open truck and headed off to the well-known river pools of Sumac Champey. Cutting through beds of soft limestone, Rio Cahabon suddenly plunges underground, only to re-emerge several hundred feet down stream. Somehow, pristine turquoise water forms large shallow pools on the surface of the earth above the subterranean river. Nacionales y extranjeras (locals and foreigners) alike come to enjoy the cool clear river water and wonder at the natural beauty. My morning was spent soaking with darting minnows in a waist deep pool trying to comprehend Kerouac’s definition of the beat generation.

“...then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing my whole life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to love, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes, "Awww!"
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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Semuc Champey

When others went off to explore a river cave with candles, Manuela and I jumped on the local bus back to our hotel. We were greeted with curious looks from the local farmers hopping on and off at dirt crossroads leading to villages high in the surrounding mountains. Passing through town, we spied a Saturday afternoon wedding party in full swing, when the driver pulled to the curb a few blocks later, just outside the dwindling weekend market, we simply followed the melodious marimba wedding music floating down the cobblestones.

The reception hall was nothing more than a large tin roofed shed carpeted with fresh green pine needles open wide to the street. Inside the wedding party danced while several men worked the large xylophone-like instrument in the corner. Guatemalans proudly claim the marimba as their own creation, though others will point toward the Caribbean as the origin of the tinkling wood instrument. I was tempted to drag Manuela out onto the dance floor, but cognizant of Maya suspicions of strangers, due to a long history of repression at the hands of outsiders, I politely stood in the street and watched the happy couple dance.

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Lanquin

On our stroll back through Lanquin, we discovered Cofradia Virgen de Conception, an outwardly crumbling church beautifully decorated with large matrimonial flowers arrangements and I made another friend while Manuela bought rollos canela (cinnamon rolls) in a panaderia (bakery). A smiling man spying my shoulder slung camera greeted me with, "Uno foto, amigo!" and gestured to a large boulder in the gutter. He picked up the limestone rock with Herculean might and posed gallantly for a picture. He was giddy with delight I showed him the photograph and quickly dragged his son out of the tiende (small store) they tended nearby for more pictures; the two proceeded to give me their best crazy-face poses, amusing the rest of the family. Nearer to the hotel, Edguardo and Oscar, two boys no more than five or six, interrupted their rock war with another group of boys, and accosted us with, "Uno foto! Uno foto!" and struck their most serious poses.

Guatemala food to resembles Costa Rica fare in simplicity and goodness. Desayuno tipico (typical breakfast) is a couple of fried eggs, delicious frijoles refrito (refried beans), tortillas (tortillas) and plantos fritos (fried plantains). Substituting chicken for eggs, and you've got almuerzo tipico (typical lunch). On our second night in Lanquin, Ed and I decided to eat like the locals, so we ate schnitzel (schnitzel) at the local German restaurant. During a late night stroll through Lanquin we encountered some young men playing football (soccer) in the street and I learned what it means to be "nutmegged” when I challenged one of them and he deftly kicked the ball between my legs.

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Mi Lanquin amigos

With infinite local idioms, Spanish can be a very challenging language. At the Hotel La Recreo restaurant, ordering arroz (rice) brings pasta (pasta); pasta gets you papas fritos (french fries); and asking for papas fritos produces arroz. In Lanquin, cinco horas (five hours) to Flores means ocho horas (eight hours) to Flores...oucho horas means a long crowded van ride with thinly veiled seat cushioning. The rearmost seat had a nice back rest but no seat filling. The middle seat had good padding, but the back rest was assembled withf metal bars sprung with barbed wire. Fortunately, we stopped several times, on our way north from Lanquin, including once in some non-descript town when our driver suddenly pulled to the curb, jumped out, and disappeared around the corner. Just as we were planning a party to search the nearby cantinas, he reappeared without explanation and we were suddenly off again. While passing back through Coban, this same driver stopped at an intersection, got out, and warmly greeted a man on the corner. He passed a ten quetzales note to the man and, after a few words, the street corner man jumped in the driver's seat and we were off again! Several hours and one shaky ferry crossing later, we left the mountains behind and entered the lowland northern department (state) of Peten, reaching Flores as evening settled.

After a dinner at a nearby restaurant, we all waited patiently as Madeleine, an accountant on vacation from Quebec, pulled out her desk top calculator and figured each of our bills all the while complaining about having to do figures while on holiday. Twenty minutes later, I dropped some quetzales on the table and walked out and joined a few of the others in search of discotheque. Being a quiet Flores Monday evening, we were forced to settle for a roadside dive where we drank Cuba Libres (cheap rum and cheaper cola), listened to a reggae tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and played some silly card game designed to get everyone drunk.

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Tikal

Missy contends that rum induces deep restful sleep well; not, however, if its only five hours before a 6:00 AM bus ride. It was a very quiet pre-dawn ride to the ancient city of Tikal, just outside Flores. Covering over 75 square miles, Tikal was carved out of this sub tropic rainforest 3000 years ago, reaching its peak in 781 AD with over 130,000 inhabitants. When the Mayans suddenly and mysteriously vanished hundreds of years ago, they left behind vast plazas, limestone paved thoroughfares, and monumental limestone pyramid temples, including Tikal’s center piece - the double headed snake temple (Temple IV). Although much of the 140 foot tall temple is still buried under centuries of crumbling limestone and dense vegetation, we climbed to the top and enjoyed vista thousands of human sacrifices viewed just before being beheaded – numerous temples protruding through a vast jungle canopy that extended beyond the sight of modern man. In one of those temples, on the south side of the grand plaza, Acropolis, I found the signature inscriptions of many of Tikal's more recent leaders, including that of the fierce ruler Beto who governed this great city in 1995...June 3, 1995 to be exact.

While sitting atop these ancient ruins, it was easy to slip a contemplative mood and consider the meaning of man (Manuela suggested a group contemplation the meaning of unemployment). Tikal is a wonder to behold, definitely worth the arduous journey across Guatemala, but after five hours of walking through the jungle and traipsing up and down steep limestone stairs, I'd seen enough. Like my tour of the endless Buddhist temples in Thailand, these religious shrines began to all look alike.

Back in Flores, I decided to take a break from the group and spend the afternoon wandering the alleyways and water fronts alone. In the evening, I took a cool twenty minute walk around the path circumnavigating the island, passing cantinas blasting Mexican Christmas music, beeping tuk-tuks (taxi scooters), and an idling bus destined for Palenque, Mexico. Along the quieter stretches of the waterfront, barking dogs and crying children could be heard from across the dark lake water. My wandering eventually led me to Flores's hilltop plaza, alive with the sights and sounds of children chasing each other around the 50 foot Christmas tree and teen practicing their break-dancing moves. A lively game of football was taking place on the basketball court while elders tumbled coins on a concrete park bench in some unknown game of chance. The sounds of Flores are never-ending in the plaza, even now as the sun rises on me this morning; the cries of the birds are being swallowed up by the singing and chatting of a group gathering at the church’s steps.

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Flores

We're off to Finca Ixobel (Ixobel Ranch), near Poptun, this morning. A three hour drive (I've checked the local translation for tres horas) away, this promises to be an interesting visit to a pseudo hippie backpacker youth hostel commune deep in the Guatemala jungle.

Buenos días!



December 5, 2008
Finca Ixobel
Poptun, Guatemala

“He dodged a mule wagon, in it sat an old Negro plodding along. "Yes!" yelled Dean. "Yes! Dig him. Now consider his soul - stop awhile and consider." And he slowed down the car for all of us to turn and look at the old jazzbo moaning along. "Oh yes, dig him sweet, now there’s thought in that mind that I would give my last arm to know; to climb in there and find out just what he’s poor-ass pondering about this years turnip greens and ham."
-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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Finca Ixobel

During a visit to Central America several years ago, my travel companion and I spent many comedor afternoons and cantina nights wondering about the tales seated at the next table and the stories standing along the bar; every life is a story, every person a character, and the elder of our group is proving to be one of the more colorful ones I’ve known recently. As I watched 70-something Denise awkwardly swing a hoola-hoop around her brittle hips to a reggae ton beat at the cantina dimly lit with straw Panama hat lamp shades (low wattage bulbs only, please) alongside Finca Ixobel´s spring fed swimming hole last night, I realized there was more to her story than the fretful forward I read on day one. Denise won’t admit her true age, though she has revealed two son’s senior to me by more than a few years, but encouraged with a couple glasses of wine she will let slip bits of her colorful life – dancing in the aisle at a Jimi Hendrix concert on the Isle of Wight; a career in Carnaby Street (London) dress shops; and a world of travel. She can be a bit cantankerous at times (if she orders the whole fish, you best bring it head to tail) and is forever worried about having enough quetzals (despite possessing the equivalent of Guatemala's gross national product). The generation gap only adds to her charm, though I kind of regret playing on her gullibility when, in one of those reaction craving cerveza moments, I told her Ed and I had been lovers for years. Denise was very non-plussed, replying, "Well, you two do seem to get along well. Perhaps Denise is nearing the end of her tale, but she out hoola-hooped me and danced the night away with the rest of us, determined to still write a few more exciting chapters.

The United States has been a major character in the last few chapters of Guatemala’s story and staying true to character, Uncle Sam has played a the ersatz benevolent kin to it’s poorer relation in the Americas family. After centuries of repression, beginning in the 16th century at the hands of the Spanish, the indigenia (referring to them as Indians is like calling African-Americans niggers) finally had their Ten Years Spring. An endless string of military juntas were replaced by a democratically elected government in 1944 and within a few years, the president was taking uncultivated land from large land owners and giving it to the Maya for subsistence farming. U.S. interests, including Boston based United Fruit Company (Guatemala’s largest land owner, employer, and exporter in 1930) cried "Commie!" at the height of the red scare, so the CIA stepped in and backed a military coup. The president chose by the people was forced to strip naked before boarding a plane bound for exile, the land was returned to the wealthy landowners, and Uncle Sam patted himself on the back for averting another red disaster.

We reached Finca Ixobel (Ixobel Ranch) early two days ago, after a brief 90 minute drive (hardly time for the barbed wire seat to tattoo my ass) south of Flores. Begun in the 70's by an California couple seeking their dream of a farm, this ecological oasis quickly developed reputation as a rest stop on two day journey between Guatemala City and Tikal; within in a few years, travelers were helping out in the kitchen and garden in exchange for a night’s stay. We weren’t required to do any work beyond stretching out the numerous twine hammocks, but trekkers can still visit Ixobel for up to six weeks in exchange for kitchen and gardening duties.

It was a cloudy misty day when we arrived, too cold for a swim in the mossy swimming hole, so we spent the afternoon in the aforementioned slings with an assortment of books, some of which were later traded for other well traveled tombs at the book exchange. As evening fell and the light dimmed (there isn’t an incandescent light bulb in the whole of Guatemala!) I found a 247 piece puzzle and set the group to work imagining what the finished picture might look like with the missing 53 pieces. Later, after a communal dinner on the patio, I attempted to organize a game of round-robin on the plywood parquet ping-pong table.

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Stretching a Finca Ixobel sling

Guatemalans seem to have an affinity for igniting deafening fireworks at the most random moments. I first heard them while relaxing mid morning in Antigua’s Parque Central and have heard them at every stop along the way. In Lanquin, they went off as evening fell; in Flores explosions marked the beginning of each day, each afternoon, each night, and random points between. But miles from the nearest cross-road, Finca Ixobel, threatened nothing more jolting than the cries of Terrorista, the resident guerilla macaw. Sometime before the sun hinted red in the eastern sky, however, I was woken by a series of earth shaking concussions, the last which actually made my bed squeak. When the explosions were replaced by extended rapid gunfire, I began to wonder if nearby Belizeans decided to invade the Guatemala panhandle. Ixobel´s proprietor later commiserated with us about the hour chosen for target practice at the nearby military base.

Some in our group set out the second day at Ixobel for a nearby waterfall & indigenia museum while still others chose to spend the day on horseback. The latter asked me to join them, but with memories of galloping madly along the shores of Lago Arenal in Costa Rica (see June 29, 2008) still fresh in my mind, I choose to remain behind with Jack Kerouac and as the rain steadily increased all day, I knew I made the right decision. I heard a rumor that Manuela knew how to play ping-pong, so after dinner I challenged her to a game. She was reluctant to leave the unfinished puzzle but quickly revealed her competitive side by running me to extra points before letting me win (and thus allowing me to preserve my ego). Afterwards, we joined the others at the pond side cantina and danced the night away with Denise.

¡Columpie esas caderas!



December 7, 2008
Hacienda Tijax
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Part of exploring the world, seeing third world sights few others are willing to venture to, is throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance. Manuela and I did just that yesterday when Livingston’s self proclaimed ambassador, Polo, approached us on a litter strewn Caribbean beach; we were rewarded with a tour of Guatemala’s culture non-gratis – Garifuna at the mouth of the Rio Dulce.

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Rio Dulce

Just a short drive south past roadside cemeteries dotted with pastel concrete crypts and a pair of hillside flags demarking Guatemala’s border with Belize, the town of Rio Dulce is a market choked crossroad on the banks of the river of the same name and home to thousands of yachting ex-patriots seeking hurricane shelter upstream from Livingston in the 30, 40, and 50 foot retirement homes moored at the numerous marinas across the river, relatively safe from the land pirates and assorted thieves in town, are lined with.

The same outboard boat that took us across the river to our "eco-hotel" later ran us upstream and across Lago Izabel to a hot spring waterfall at the foot of a dense jungle mountain where we bathed in the lukewarm waters of a crystal clear pool and showered beneath the limestone falls until the heat became unbearable.

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Hot spring waterfall

Traveling with this tour company means never knowing what adventure in accommodations await us at the next stop; each is unique in style and ammenities. Hacienda Tijax, here on the Rio Dulce, is built over what would be the river if it were flooding. During the dry season, like now, the lobby deck and mahogany slat boardwalks connecting the individual rooms are stilted over marshy riverbank mud. Referring to the lodging at Tijax as rooms is an overstatement; shed is a better descriptive. Narrow spaced white washed plank floors (including the shower) and a a narrow back porch overlooking swampy mud top the list of amenities. Mere plastic shower curtains separate the toilet (Please don’t put paper in the toilet!) from the rest of the room, so advertising banos privado is a bit deceptive; however, being able to open the front door while actually seated on the toilet might be billed as some sort of convenience.

Like my many months aboard the Andrea C in my youth, the days of an extended vacation like this become obscure reference points - what day is it? The 3rd or 4th? Wednesday or Thursday? Yesterday, which we all finally agreed after a lengthy dinner discussion was Sunday, we took a most fantastic journey down the Rio Dulce, past Castillo de San Felipe, erected in 1595 to protect Guatemala from marauding pirates, to Livingston. Along the way we stopped at a backwater lily pad coconut stand and passed through a most amazing canyon, whose sheer walls forced the lush vegetation to cling precariously above families fishing the green water in rough hewn dugout canoes. At the end of our two hour our voyage, we alighted at the Caribbean terminus of the river in the Garifuna capital of the world.

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Hacienda Tijax

Tucked down in the Bay of Honduras, Livingston is a mix of Ladinos and Caribbean’s originating in Jamaica, sort of a “Bob Marla jams with a Guatemala marimba quartet”; street side markets boasted tie-dyed hammocks in Jamaican black, green, and yellow and starving hairless scabbed dogs roamed the streets in death walks slow enough for tourists to count individual ribs. When the group followed Steve down Livingston’s main street in mass I was beset with a sense of Touristas!, so I invited Manuela down a road less traveled. We dipped out toes in the Mer Carribe at the road’s sand limit. It was while wondering about the stark white statue anchored 300 yards off the dirty beach that Polo approached us with a hand full of flyers for a local night club.

I’m usually suspicious of locals approaching me with fists full of handbills extolling this discotheque or that excursion outfitter and I felt no different as the grey bearded Rastafarian dressed in a tattered t-shirt declaring “la verginidad produce cancer (vacuno gratis)”, but before long, Manuela and I reluctantly let Polo lead us on a walking tour of the Garifuna neighborhood he claims the Guatemalan government doesn’t want visitors to see, including through the orphanage filled with secondary victims of 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, all the while regaling us with stories of his days in a reggae band traveling the world. My suspicions of Polo’s motives for his personal tour eased when after fifteen minutes of strolling through crumbling concrete block houses, around stray chickens and pigs, and into the kitchen/coconut husk carving studio of Livingston's resident Canadian, Sybil; if Polo was bent on robbing us, he would have done it between the hurricane rubble or in the one room house he brought us into to meet his kin. I was skeptical, of Polo’s band touring stories until he mentioned playing in Santa Cruz, Mountain View's Shoreline Theatre, and European cities previously unbeknownst to me but readily recognized by my Austrian companion. If Polo was giving us a story, his details were incredibly accurate. After an impromptu bongo jam session at Livingston's reggae club, we left with a CD of Polo's music; it's merely marked with Memorex, so until I find a CD player, I won’t know what I paid 65 quetzales for.

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Jamming with Polo

Back at Hacienda Tijax, the younger travelers in the group took a water taxi across the river for cervezas and pizza at a restaurant that required patrons to check their guns at the door; I spotted several locals sporting holstered pistols in Rio Dulce, and as much as I would have liked to keep up with them, I opted for pacing myself for the second half of our journey and had dinner with the others. After a few glasses of red wine, Denise went on a roll with stories of chasing the Rolling Stones and getting stoned on a rolling Greyhound bus across the states on a Greyhound bus. Somewhere along the way she met Mick Jagger and, referring to him as bloody nuisance, told us, "The problem with Mick Jagger is that he slept with all your friends, no matter how bloody horrid they were."

After the wine bottles were emptied, Manuela and I wandered amongst the yachts tied up Hacienda Tijax’s docks and listened to the music of Rio Dulce’s discoteque drifting across the quiet water.

Today began with a light early morning rain pattering of our tin roof shed and broad leafed jungle foliage before quickly building to a climatic down pour, drowning out the numerous passing motor boats ferrying Rio Dulceans to work. As quickly as it began though, the rain slowed to a stop, leaving only the arrhythmic spilling of collected water dropping from the dense canopy above to the river water below. When the clearing day dawned we set off for Monterrico, on Guatemala's opposite coast, and our next adventure in accommodations.

Como una piedra rodante!

Posted by SChandler 14:36 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Guatemala 2008, Part 3

December 9-15, 2008

December 9, 2008
Volcano Lodge
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Perhaps it is the length of this trip; maybe it is the people I'm traveling with; it could be the beauty and simplicity of this country; I've never felt so far removed from the rest of the world before. My eight to five has become foreign; my daily routine a stranger. It weren't for loved ones back home, I might never stir from this gently swinging hammock where I need only the fresh sea air, the sun rising over the mangroves, and a good book.

Our journey west from Mer Carribe to the Océano Pacífico took most of the day, passing back through Guatemala City, where we picked up a paper mache El Diablo to burn as on Guatemala's annual December 7 La Quema del Diablo celebration (burn the devil and assorted household trash). We arrived beachside in Monterrico in time for a swim in warm pounding surf that deposited sand in places sand should never be, and, once the sun dipped below the distant azure horizon, we watched locals dragged heaps of garbage onto the black sand to burn through out the night while we set our own devil aflame.

My travelmates and I continued to monitor the fires dwindling up and down the beach while dining on Hotel El Pez de Oro’s wide sandside veranda. Built on the beach, El Pez is our latest affair in housing. The thatched roof bungalows offer porch slung hammocks and pane less windows. Aside from the shower with only one handle (cold), El Pez is actually quite nice. Unfortunately, cold trickling water is not an efficient means of washing black sand from places it should never be.

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Monterrico's black sand beach

Ed has scorned me since Antigua about Americans fascination with keeping fit and active. His idea of a jolly holiday is waking sometime before lunch and having a bit of a look around before adjourning to the nearest cantina for what ever the locals are drinking. He's been lugging a pint of Guatemala's finest cheap rum about since Antigua, threatening to break the seal once everyone is good and soused so as not to notice how bad it is. In Livingston, he picked up a dodgy looking bottle of local rum from a roadside card table stand. I'm leery of the hand printed label, Giffiti, and odd bits settled on the bottle's bottom.

I'm not particularly keen on early mornings, either, but I woke at 4:45 this morning with many of the others for a pre-dawn tour of the local mangroves. Our guide poled us off the quay in a flat bottom boat while the brighter stars still clung to the western morning sky and treated us to a solemn sunrise disturbed only by the cries of the thousands of birds above and water plopping of four eyed fish (two above water, two below) hopping along the water’s surface. Sometimes it pays to get up early.

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Hotel El Pez de Oro

Every paradise has its shortcoming. Eden had it's serpent; Monterrico has it's mosquitoes. Because of the nearby estuary, the relentlessly biting bugs come out each night with a vengeance, seeking any chemical free epidural surface clad in less than double layer wool. Hotel El Pez de Oro isn't the first place I've stayed with mosquito nets hung over the beds, but its the first time I've employed the gauzy netting, diligently tucking it in all around my bed. It can be a damned nuisance, though, when one realizes the book or reading glasses have been left on the bed side table out of reach.

Monterrico is a typical third world town with a third world economy. Aside from the pitted concrete main road lined with numerous open air restaurants and tiendes attended by sleepy adolescents, Monterrico's other streets and byways are paved with dusty black sand. With just a few quetzales and pint of DEET, Manuela and I set out to paint the town pastel red. The first order of business, in a country whose primary source of non-vegetarian dishes is chicken prepared in infinite manners (reminiscent of my teenage years when my mother learned to cook the fowl 37 different ways after my father's heart attack), was to dine on something bigger what I've heard crowing well before each every crack of dawn morning since arriving in Guatemala. I learned the hard way, however, why Guatemalans prefer the white meat after ordering a beefsteak that more closely resembles a cow's hide than its flank in appearance, taste, and toughness. Ed belatedly noted that most of the cattle we've seen in the countryside more appear closely related to the (east) Indian variety where they are bred to be sacred not steaks.

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Main Street, Guatemala

I've entertained numerous inquiries as to why I choose foreign travel over exploring our own wide country. Next time I explain my desire to visit places vastly foreign to me, I’ll use Monterrico as an example. As I wandered Main Street Guatemala after dinner, reveled in the children playing in the warm evening, families eating lazy long dinners at the comidas, and many others strolling up and down the sidewalks, I felt a world removed from Elk Grove, California. Perhaps there are TVs, cable boxes, and X-Boxes hidden behind the cinder block walls of the homes I passed, but none were evident through the windows and doors open to passing neighbors. I felt I was in a world of family, friends; a world of people.

As much as I would like to spend another day with sand on my toes and a book on my lap, we're headed back to the northern highlands this morning, to Lake Atitlan, a lake recognized for the numerous sleepy villages dotting it's shore, many accessible only by boat.

Cuelgu flojo!



December 11, 2008
Volcano Lodge, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The colors of Guatemala span a rainbow of hues - turquoise blue water of Semuc Champey, lively pastels of Antigua homes, volcanic black sand stretches of Monterrico - but the one color that encompasses all of the beauty is the verdant green of Guatemala's natural wonders in all their leafy shades. No color scheme is monochrome, however, and in this developing country, the predominant accent it Tigo Blue. Every third building is highlighted with Guatemala’s monopolistic cellular telephone company's trademark blue - tiendes, homes, and even a few of the many brightly colored concrete crypts we passed on the highway to Lake Atitlan.

After being forced from my beachside lounge in Monterrico, the group traveled the morning, in a tour bus that far more closely resembled a privately charted jet than our earlier sado-masochistic van, to Lake Atitlan, high in the Sierra Madre mountains. Not unlike Lake Tahoe in size and depth, Atitlan is similarly surrounded by mountains, though these feature three volcanoes - Toliman, Santiago, and San Pedro, rather than snow capped peaks in California. We lunched at a cafe along one of Panajachel's streets lined with t-shirt stalls and hammock hawkers and before settling in our chairs, we were set upon by local costumed women and children selling hand woven textiles, key rings, and bracelets, while showing off their mastery of the English language..."Buy one thing? Buy one thing, mister?" To discourage their pestering, I donned my native garb - a blue Tigo ball cap I bought off a toll booth attendant for 40 quetzales, and immediately blended in with the locals.

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Lake Atitlan

After a chorizo lunch that more resembled an appetizer than the daily special, we rode a water taxi 20 minutes down the shore to the tiny village of Jaibalito. I was thrilled to discover our lodgings bathroom had two shower faucets (hot and cold!) and no mosquito netting. Volcano Lodge is easily the nicest accommodations we've stayed at in Guatemala - large beds, private patios with loungeable furniture, and a three course dinner in a candle lit lodge accompanied by the duet of a loud speaker preacher and his evangelical music from a nearby village church.

Lake Atitlan was on the edge of Guatemala's revolution, waged for 36 years by several rebel factions seeking land ownership and greater rights for the Maya, who comprise approximately on-third of Guatemala's population. The U.S. backed government launched their "Scorched Earth" policy during the 1980's, destroying over 100 indigenia villages and killing more than 100,000 Guatemalans thought to be aiding the guerilla fighters. By the time the government signed the Peace Accord in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, "disappeared," or displaced. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigaberto Menchu and numerous international organizations are still seeking information about the fate or whereabouts of many of those disappeared loved ones.

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Maximon

Yesterday we crossed the lake to visit the town of Santiago, once a flash point during the revolution. Today, the only battle waged is by tourists trying to break through the barrage of hawkers set upon them as soon they land on the beach. Our objective in this centuries old town was to visit the shrine of Maximon, patron saint of Santiago. This cigar smoking, rum drinking irreverent folk lore demigod is widely adored by Guatemalans despite dubious beginnings. As a man, centuries ago, Maximon offered to take care of the village wives while the men were off tending their fields. One husband cut off Maximum’s arms and legs after catching him in bed with his wife. Naturally, becoming a god was the next step in the ordinary course of events. Santiago families annually vie for the responsibility of caring for Maximon during the coming year, erecting a shrine in their homes and hosting and endless parade of Santiagoans placing smoldering cigarettes in his mouth, splashing him with rum, or lighting various colored candles before him, each hue representing supplication for life, love, wealth, or misfortune on a neighbor. For a few quetzales, tourist can play homage to Maximon with a few camera flashes.

After our pilgrimage, a number in the group shopped the many stalls lining the village’s narrow cobblestone streets where one can bargain for woven garment, hand crafted worry dolls, and brightly painted depictions of Guatemalan life. I haggled the sanitorio (restroom) attendant from dos quetzals para una persona down to tres quetzales para dos personas. Manuela and I stumbled upon the ugliest Christmas tree in all of the Americas. Constructed from fresh pine boughs fastened to a 40 foot tall cone frame, the natural needles apparently weren't the proper shade of green, so they were spray painted with metallic green. We visited two other lake side villages - San Pedro and San Marcos, each one less commercial and more local than the last. In all three towns, the women wore traditional huiles (blouses) hand woven with the hue and pattern indicative of their village. At lunch on a veranda overlooking Lake Atitlan, Manuela and I shared a pizza while she taught me to count in German. I gave up when she laughed uncontrollably every time I reached five, which in German has a cartoonish resemblance to passing gas.

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Santiago waterfront

Last night's dinner conversation evolved from Guatemala sights of to return flights. Our sixteen day journey is winding down and thoughts are returning to the lives that await us back home in the mundo verdadero, be it California, Canada, England, or Austria. But before leaving this nation, we’ve yet to experience its heart and soul. We’ll be visiting Central America’s largest market in Chichicastenango this morning before returning to our final stop, Antigua.

¡Permítanos marca un trato!



December 13, 2008
El Portal Cafe
Antigua, Guatemala

Every country has its signature natural wonders – a panoramic mountain vista, towering waterfalls, or picturesque coasts – but the most enduring sights, smells, and sounds of countries I've been fortunate to visit are in the markets – the colorful fresh fruits of Chiang Mai, aroma of fast frying vegetables in Singapore, and the rhythmic pat-pat-pat of tortilla making in Chichicastenango. I love to wander the aimless, chaotic walkways and alleyways of street markets, reveling in the sights, smells, and sounds; soaking up the heart and soul of the country, experiencing the people. More is learned about a culture in a ten minute market stroll than in hours of book study.

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Riding to the Chichi market

Our group reached Chichicastenango's market after riding a series of cheek-ken booses (chicken buses), where the “Maximum Passengers-71” is a guideline rather than a rule. Riding third on a seat made for two means sitting half on/half off; after twenty minutes, Manuela and I swapped across the aisle with travelmates several times to alternate aisle hanging nalgas.

Chichi's (who wants to say Chichicastenango over and over?) market is an endless maze of street sellers and peddlers hawking their goods – hand woven fabrics, Che Gueverra t-shirts, and dubiously copyrighted DVDs. To reach the real soul of the market, though, you have to wander deep into the darker, narrower passages; you have to go beyond the t-shirt stalls and hammock hawkers; you have to be willing to choose the walkway less traveled by tourists. It’s in the deeper parts that locals come to shop for dried shrimp, pots and pans, spices, and cell phones. It took a couple of hours to fully explore all of the Chichi’s market (though parts started to look suspiciously alike), easily covering four city blocks, but in the process Manuela and I discovered tortilla alley, where the air was filled with the rhythmic pat-pat-pat of scores of young Guatemalan women forming fresh tortillas with their hands before slipping them onto the dozens of round charcoal fired griddles (25 cents buy half a dozen corn tortillas directly from the fire, still warm 30 minutes later) and a gymnasium floor covered with fresh fruits and vegetables (65 cents buys a bunch of bananas).

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Chichicastenango market

Chichi is a city market many highland Mayans come twice a week to sell the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Many of the solitary women, dressed in the colors of their village, find any space available on the cobblestone paths to display baskets of produce; some offering nothing more than a few pieces of fruit. One older woman had only half dozen bundles of resin soaked kindling to sell.

Chichi merchants and vendors are far more subtle than in many other world markets where a passer-by is hounded incessantly with pleas to buy their wares (Thailand was the worst). Here, even the hammock hawkers make only singular subdued calls for a sale. I intended to bring home only one small keepsake for my bookcase, but after spending the past two weeks in hammocks, I was tempted to return with one for my patio. One young woman offered to sell me a large cloth hammock for 250 quetzales ($30 US) when I made the mistake of stopping to admire it. Figuring I could haggle for half that, I decided to drive a hard bargain. The fun of any market is vying for the best deal and the challenge is to come out on top (its all about winning!). If not carefully, though, I'll find myself dickering over ten quetzales (US $0.75) on a thirty dollar purchase.

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Iglesia de Santo Tomas, built in 1514

Sometimes winning the deal means being willing to walk away, so after hammock hawker's final offer of 200 quetzales, I countered with my best, "I'll think about it" look and threaten to shop her competitors. She let me walk way, so I wandered a few stalls to another sleep sling merchant. After studying the quality of their material (they're probably all made in China), I looked up to see the same saleswoman. Apparently her family owns a chain of Chichi hammock stalls (perhaps even a monopoly), which greatly put me at a disadvantage, being hard to counter with, "Well, I can get it cheaper down the way." When the haggling dust settled, I walked away with two hammocks for 300 quetzales. Now I've got two relaxing recliners for reading on my patio, but most importantly, I got them at my price - winner! Not all Chichi hawkers are low pressure salespeople, though. While seated on the steps of Iglesia de Santo Tomas, an early sixteenth church on the markets edge, a boy with polish blackened hands and a shine box persistently offered to give me a shine. I was wearing flip-flops!

I've been fortunate to enjoy a number of once in a lifetime experiences during some of my travels - passing through the Panama Canal, entering the Steelers’s locker room after a game in Los Angeles, swimming with dolphins in Cozumel. Now I can add roasting marshmallows over a volcano to the list. The morning after returning to Antigua from Chichi, a number in our group woke before the sun to hike Volcan Pacaya, about an hour drive away. The two and half mile hike began in the village of San Francisco, (elev. 5000 feet). It was a steep arduous 100 minute hike, including crossing Rio Grande, Pacaya's 2006 lava eruption. The last 1/4 mile, straight up the loose volcanic rock side of Pacaya's 8000 foot peak was akin to climbing a steep loose sand dune scattered with shards of broken Pepsi bottles, but our guide led us to within three feet of the molten red rock slowly flowing downhill with escalator like steadiness. I gave the surprising hard flow a few obligatory pokes with my hiking stick, igniting the tip instantaneously before roasting a few marshmallows.

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Volcan Pacaya

There are times when being the gender minority is a great disadvantage. Before our last meal together last night, my travel group and I gathered for a salsa lesson. If learning a dance that requires rhythm (this white boy can't dance) wasn’t bad enough, Steve and I, outnumbered 8 to 2, were forced to dance with the endless circle of rotating ladies. I danced with a cumulative 37 women, and not one of them bought me a drink! And if you had seen me dance, you would certainly say my rumba needed some rum. I draw the line at private humiliation, so when the others decided to take their new dance moves public - a local salsa club, I pleaded volcano weary legs and separated company. To any of my travel mates who may have photographic evidence of my dis-rythmia, I plead…

¡Qué sucede en Guatemala, permanece en Guatemala!



December 15, 2008
Elk Grove, California

So much can change in the course of a few weeks, yet so much remains the same. I returned to Cafe El Portal, across from Antigua's Parque Central, the last morning of the group tour for one more delicious cup of cafe negra. That hadn't changed since my last cup there 16 days ago. The newspaper urchin was selling her dailies wearing the same dirty clothes and the shoe shine boys were still practicing their trade in the park, even at that early hour. Hotel de Campanas was still noisy and the hot water inconsistent. Antigua may not have changed during my absence (and in some ways not for hundreds of years) but the world did; it became smaller. Manuela joined me for a cup of her preferred chocolat caliente con leche.

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Posada de Don Rodrigo

I had one more night in Antigua before coming home, so I returned to de Campanas for the last time after that cup of coffee to gather my belongings. No more adventures in accommodations for me; I was ready for a quieter hotel, something with reliable hot water. I said goodbye to some of my travel mates, those leaving throughout the morning, and with Manuela wandered the now familiar cobblestones for decent hotel, much as I did my first day in this colonial town. One view of an available room at Posada de Don Rodrigo, a hotel restored from two 500 year old affluent homes was all I needed to know I’d found truly unique lodging. Each room, arranged around two beautiful fountain centered courtyards, is unique in amenities and history; my dormitorio’s painted vault ceiling once sheltered a famous Central American opera diva. The only unauthentic amenity in this 16th century posada is the hot water...lots of hot water! Perhaps the most amazing feature of Don Rodrigo is the rate. Manuela thought it was unnecessarily extravagant but the $70/night is just a fraction of what this hotel would command in Napa Valley, or some other California getaway hotspot.

The few of us remaining in Antigua one more night met at the office of the Policia de Tourismo in the afternoon for an escorted visit to Antigua's cemetery (Manuela's idea). According to the guidebook, the endless maze of crypt and tombs is a favorite haunt for bandito's preying on camera toting tourists and protection is recommended. Initially, the desk officer suggested we would be perfectly safe to visiting the dead unescorted during the day, but he found a reluctant officer to accompany us. Security in the cemetery came into further question when our armed escort wouldn’t leave before rounding up a partner. The two men slowly followed us, at a dozen paces, several blocks to the cemetery and similarly as we strolled amongst the graves. If the cemetery wasn't eerie enough, having two uniformed officers continually eye us from a distance was downright unnerving. Hoping to strike up a report with the officers, I informed them I was a police sergeant back home, but they seemed quite unfazed, one even displayed outright disbelief (at least I think I told them I was a police sergeant, but with these crazy local idioms, who knows!). After half an hour and a dozen pictures of the stately white-washed crypts alongside interspersed with weedy dirt mounds marked with scrap wood crosses spray painted black, we left our ángeles custodios at the entrance and headed off to the relative safety of the Saturday afternoon market. I didn't even want to contemplate whether or not we were supposed to tip them.

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Antigua cemetary

In this day and age of paperless ticketing, I've learned it is still wise to carry some information about your flight itinerary. I arrived at La Aurora International Airport yesterday morning armed only with the knowledge that I was flying Continental to Houston at one-something in the afternoon. But there was no Continental Airline check-in counter and there was no flight bound for Houston listed on the departure board, so I began to wonder if I was flying on a Continental code-share airline or that my connection was in Atlanta. Frantically I searched for an information agent, an internet connection, or anybody that spoke English. Thankfully, I eventually found the latter and was directed to one small unmarked out-of-the-way Continental check-in agent and was soon bound for the USA.

United States of America - the land of drinking water on tap, two-ply toilet paper (Please, put the paper IN the toilet!), and strict immigration scrutiny. I've passed through US immigrations a dozen times before with nary a hitch. But each journey brings some new experience, like being escorted from the Tokyo terminal to the tarmac for one last baggage inspection or dashing through Houston’s airport to make a connection. The newest experience was being detained by immigration officials. Without explanation, I was taken to a holding office for secondary inspection, where I sat with a dozen other citizens and visitors for 90 minutes. Apparently, my anti-hero, Scott Chandler, is wanted somewhere for some nefarious act. One fellow detainee, Mohammed Mohammed, was simply told he was stopped because of he has a common name! After being questioned about tattoos and scars (none, thank you), they determined I was the law-abiding Scott and was sent on my way in time to catch my connection home.

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Home again

I was greeted in Sacramento by a cold drizzly rain and at home by Phineas’s whimpering cries of joy. It was good to be home where little had changed, even if I had. The world is a smaller than it was 20 days ago, not only Guatemala, where I learned so much about it's natural beauty, colorful culture, and rich (if at times tragic) history and culture, but other parts of the world as well. Over hundreds of van bumpy miles, in countless coldwater hotels, restaurants, and cantinas Ed, Denise, and Wendy taught me what it means to be British, while the lasses, Joy Anne & Katrina, shared much about their Irish culture and heritage. Manuela, educated about the difference between her country and Switzerland (I won't make that mistake again!), but more importantly, she taught me to take off my polarized made-in-America sunglasses and look at (and listen to) the world and the people in it through a different set of lens.

Gracias tanto, Schön[/i], y mucho gusto![/i]

Where to next?

Posted by SChandler 14:36 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Costa Rica 2008, Part 1

June 25-29

June 25, 2008
Tranquilio Backpackers Hostel
San Jose, Costa Rica

Hola,

Have you ever lay awake at night wondering what you've gotten yourself into? Or worse, wondering what you've gotten yourself and your teenage son into? By shunning expensive taxis for public transportation and en suite hotels for budget hostels, Scott and I were aiming to add some adventure to the start of our ten day Costa Rica adventure. The former worked out well…the latter, not so much.

Our journey through this Central America paradise with a popular on-line tour operator began with a midnight departure from Sacramento. Four hours later we arrived in Houston and spent the remainder of the morning sleeping on the floor overlooking George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s runway 3E. By early afternoon, though, we were on the ground at Jose Santamaria International Airport in Alejuela, just outside the Costa Rican capital and, arriving the day before the start of our guided trip, we anxious to begin our adventure.

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Houston Intercontinental Airport

After clearing immigration and customs, and with a little direction from the airport tourism guide, Scott and I wended our way through the throng of taxi drivers clamoring for a $7400 CRC fare (Costa Rican Colones, equivalent to $15 USD) into the heart of San Jose and found the $350 CRC ($0.67 USD) TUASA bus just outside the airport parking lot. Any concerns of getting on a bus leading away from the capital and deep into Nicaragua was quickly dispelled by a man beside the big red coach yelling, “San Jose…San Jose…” Everything was going according to plan.

The downtown Coca Cola bus stop, so named because it is next to the soda drink plant that is no long there (locals use landmarks for directions rather than street names and addresses here, even long after the landmark has been razed), is on the far side of the city center from the cluster of hostels in the historic Barrio Amon neighborhood, so Scott and I walked the 15 or so blocks through the heart of downtown during the afternoon rush. With our luggage on our backs, we never drew a sideways glance down the Avenida Central pedestrian mall; San Joseans are used to seeing gringo tourists traipsing through their city and across their country.

We decided (or was it I?) upon the Tranquilio Backpackers hostel, described in the guidebook as a reader's top choice because of it’s, “ample hammock's and common rooms radiate tranquility and peaceful times.” And a bargain at just $17 for a double room! Once we were buzzed in the front security door, I was immediately attracted to the laid back, albeit dilapidated, tropical ambiance populated with young people from a variety of countries, adorned with a variety of styles, and smoking a variety of herbs.

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Tranquilio Backpackers

The thought of asking to see the room before never crossed my mind; it’s just not something we do in the states and this is the first trip where we (or was it I?) chose accommodations upon arrival instead of in advance on-line or through an agent. After plunking down US$28 (the rates of gone up, of course) we were lead through a couple of doors, through a common room where a number of the aforementioned young people were watching a Spanish language Naruto cartoon on a 1970’s console TV, up a flight of stairs, and down a few halls to Number 3. To say our room, obviously partitioned from an original bedroom in this old Victorian mansion, is spartan is an understatement. It doesn't rate a descriptive word with that many letters - four would be plenty, and it was standing in the doorway that I got my first "what have I gotten us into..." feeling. Part of the adventure, right?

The match-box sized room contained two framed mattresses, two sheets, two blankets, two pillows and one light bulb. Our narrow window opened up, somewhat, to a wonderful view of an adjacent room and a corrugated roof. Loud music, wafting up from the lobby below the tin roof, competed with the loud Spanish-Japanese cartoon. Scott and I agreed the front desk was playing a pretty good selection of rock and roll, so we left the window open and closed the door. Neither of the toilet stalls across the way were gender marked, but as neither affords any privacy, it probably won’t matter. Close by are two closets inconspicuously marked as showers and apparently this is a BYOT establishment (bring your own towel).

Once settled (what more can you do to settle in a barren room than simply drop your bags?) Scott and I scouted a couple of other nearby hostels and hotels, including where we would be joining the others following day. But Scott's “I don’t care” attitude and my already spent cash convinced me to stay with Tranquilio Backpackers and embrace the adventure. We headed back to the center of town; found a Burger King for one last fast food dinner; and watched break dancers perform. We took a moment to pondered why a large woman with beach ball sized buns was immortalized in a life size statue outside the flower market. As the evening grew, hawkers began bargaining handmade craftwork, children’s clothes, and pirated DVDs on blankets spread out along the pedestrian mall.

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Tranquilio Backpackers

Back at TB, there was no sign of the music or cartoon ending, so I read while Scott amused himself with his latest electronic gadget. Soon the long day, despite a five hour Houston nap took its toll; we were both ready to crash by 8:30 PM. As I lay back in the dark, listening to U2 from the lobby and multi-language conversations through paper thin walls, it was hard not to again wonder "what have I gotten us into?”

Despite the hall way floor boards creaking all night with the constant comings and goings of the other guests and a foam pad mattress that was far more foam than pad, I slept rather well. Scott must not be too disturbed by the bustle; its 9:30 AM and he's still sleeping. After enjoying a free continental breakfast (a pitcher of pancake batter and a hotplate) I decided to take advantage of TB’s other free amenity-low speed internet access!

We’ll be meeting up with our fellow travelers this afternoon to begin our tour. Fifteen or so of us, in the company of a local leader, will spend the next nine days visiting some of this Costa Rica’s most popular sights – volcanoes, cloud forests, and tropical beaches. I’ve learned a little bit about a few of them through the tour operator’s on-line forum - two young ladies traveling from New York City and a single woman from Florida. Yesterday Scott wondered if the tall blond family of four that shared our flight from Houston and was wandering near our hostel last night might be in our group too. I’m looking forward to meeting our guide; the right leader can make or break a trip like this.

Pura Vida!



June 26, 2008
Hotel Paradisio
La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Buenos,

When Scott asked if he could order a margarita at dinner Wednesday night, I was reminded of the time, a teenager myself, I tried to order a Pina Colada while dining out with my parents. The waiter politely asked, "Virgin?" Assuming he was referring to the drink, I meekly responded affirmatively. Curious to see if Scott would go through with his request, I told him to go for it. I was pretty confident his first bitter sip would be his last. I told him the experience would make a great story someday. Little did I know, those words would come back to haunt me.

Despite Tranquilio Backpackers’s one star accommodations, Scott and I lounged away Wednesday morning in a couple lobby hammocks indulging in one of my favorite vacation pastimes - reading. I delved into Costa Rica, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, an anthology of short stories by Costa Rican writers, and learned about Tico life. The Carbonera (Carlos Salazar Herreras) explores the life of a rural charcoal maker in the southern provinces while In Shadows of the Banana Tree (Carlos Luis Falles) depicts life on a banana plantation on the Caribbean coast. The Tarqua Tree (Fabian Dobles) characterizes Costa Rican’s relaxed manner. Chided by his brother for whiling away his days in the shade of the tree’s enormous leaves, Lolo simply replied, “I’m not wasting my time, I’m honing it.”

In the afternoon, Scott and I walked to San Jose's Mercado Central at the east end of the city center. Established in 1855, this enclosed city block is a medley of stalls, stores, and sodas (lunch counters). Wandering the narrow alleys and tiny shops, we experienced the color, sounds, and smells of Costa Rica’s capital-vibrant reds, yellows, and greens of the produce stands, sizzles of greasy lunch counters, and rich coffee aromas of cafes. Nearly everything can be found in there, including freshly butchered meat, house wares and, of course, souvenirs. Scott picked up a leather coin pouch to hold his Colones (or is it my Colones?).

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Mercado Central

When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the Caribbean coast of this land bridge between North and South American in 1502, he declared it la costa rica (rich coast). Three hundred years of Spanish rule later, Costa Rica won independence. A civil war quickly ensued between the liberal politicians of San Jose and the conservative leaders in Cartago, twenty miles away. The liberals triumphed and established San Jose as the seat of government. Today, the metropolitan area is home to 1.5 million people. The Plaza de Cultura (Culture Plaza), the center of San Jose, is home to thousands of hungry pigeons, many of whom Scott had eating out of the palm of his hand. The historic Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica (Costa Rica National Theatre), built in 1891, adjoins the plaza, casting afternoon shadows on the square. Unfortunately, chamber music was on the bill, so Scott and I settled for a brief tour of the ornately decorated lobby. Outside, in the busy square, farmers were selling fresh fruit to the people passing in every direction in the early afternoon. One gentleman was selling avocado halves ready to eat with a plastic spoon.

The Museos del Banco Central (Central Bank Museums), beneath the Plaza de Cultura, features three separate museums-Museo del Oro Precolumbino (Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold), Museo de Numismatica (Numismatic Museum), and Sala de Exhibiciones Temporales (Temporary Exhibition Gallery). The Pre-Columbian museum details the history of indigenous Costa Ricans and the importance of gold in their culture. The smaller Numismatic Museum displays the history of the Costa Rican currency and the Exhibits Gallery featured modern art by local artists. After touring the museums, Scott and I walked out to the Museo de Niños y Niñas (Boys and Girls Museum), a children’s science museum housed in a rescued 18th century prison on the outskirts of downtown. From the front steps we got a good view of the San Jose skyline, such as it is.

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Teatro Nacional

In the evening, after settling in our new, posh hotel (toilets & towels!), Scott and I met several of our fellow travelers in the atrium lobby. Robby and Veronica, despite having just met on their flight from Orlando, were already fast friends. She claims to be a pre-med student; he, from Ohio, is being treated to a high school graduation trip by Aunt Melissa. She hails from the same town in Florida as Veronica. As the other eight travelers straggled in, we were all greeted by our leader, Michelle, and I could tell immediately it was going to be a great trip.

A petite woman, Michelle’s eyes flashed with anticipation while talking about our coming adventures in La Fortuna, St. Elena, and Quepos and her excitement peaked while hinting at several surprises awaiting us along the way. Clearly Michelle intended to have as much fun as we, beginning passing out nicknames as we each introduced ourselves (Scott 1 and Scott 2). That tall blonde family, hailing from Minnesota (don’t ‘cha know), is indeed part of the group and Scott was pleased to discover the son, Michael (Blondie), is his age. His parents, Mike (Daddy Gratz) and Angela (Momma Gratz), are vacationing with him and his sister, Jenn (Aqua Jenn), to celebrate her recent university graduation.

Over dinner at Michelle’s favorite San Jose restaurant, Tico Italiano, I had a chance to get to know the others. Twenty-six year old Brooke (B.B.), traveling alone from Canada, seemed ill at ease with all the excitement; she barfed all over the table. Alyson and Lindsey (the Chickas) from the Big Apple, were immediately put off by the incident. Very attentive toward one another, I suspected these young ladies are a couple. I learning about Michelle’s extensive travel through Europe, Asia, and now Central America. Scott hit it off with Blondie and Aqua Jenn, but couldn’t help notice how easily he engaged others at the table, including the most distant traveler. Carolina, a university teacher from Finland, was the only one in the party not from North America. It appears we’ll be spending the next nine days with a good mixture of younger and older visitors.

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San Jose

We started this morning with an early two hour drive to Rio Toro for our first adventure - white water rafting. Brooke, sufficiently recovered from a bad case of tortellini, sat behind Scott and I, regaling Veronica with many stories about the time she rafted in Ontario. Before long, “One time I rafted on the Ottawa River…” sounded, like Michelle Flaherty talking about her band camp experiences in American Pie. It’s no wonder Veronica attached herself more closely to Robby as the day progressed.

I rafted the world class Pacuare River during my previous visit to Costa Rica in 2005. The rain swollen river was running fast and high that day and the normally two hours ride through Class II and III rapids took less than 45 minutes. I figured I knew what to expect on the Rio Toro (One time I rafted the Pacuare River…), but today's odyssey turned out to be much longer and much more difficult.

The journey through 45 Class III (Oh my God!) and IV (Holy sh--!) rapids left us little time to relax. During one of the more difficult torrents the raft I was on flipped over; the screams of my paddle mates (or was that me?) was drowned out by the roiling sucking water. When I finally came up for air I grabbed for the nearest boat and scrambled aboard. It didn't matter that it wasn't my raft. Three hours later, when the expedition mercifully and I was describing the emerging bruises on my left hip, right buttock, and both elbows, Scott gleefully pointed out, "That'll make a great story someday, Dad."

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Typico almeurzo

Tico’s have a simple staple diet - rice and beans, beans and rice, and any combination thereof. A typico desayuna (typical breakfast) includes eggs, toast, and often a slice of cheese with the beans and rice. The nourishing typico almeurzo (typical lunch) – beef stew with rice and beans, we enjoyed after drying off the Rio Toro was rejuvenating. Although traditional Costa Rican cuisine lacks the spiciness usually found in other Central American countries, it more than makes up for with hearty goodness.

We reached our next stop, La Fortuna at the base of Volcán Arenal (Arenal Volcano), by early evening. First settled in the early part of last century because of it’s rich grazing land, La Fortuna evolved into a sleepy agricultural town. That tranquility was shattered in 1968 when the volcano, long thought to be extinct, erupted. The nearby villages of Tabacon and Pueblo Nuevo were buried under lava and ash and 80 lives were lost. Soon after the eruption, La Fortuna blossomed into a mecca for volcano aficionados burning to see red hot lava flows and glowing night skies. It is also home to several natural hot springs and we spent the evening at the "Disneyland of Hot Springs," a resort with dozens party sized hot tubs filled with volcanic hot water, including one with a waterslide!

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La Fortuna

Our first two days have been a whirlwind of excitement and discovery, but the adventures are just beginning! Tomorrow, Scott and I will hike up a volcano and repel down a waterfall. The Chickas have nearly convinced Scott to bungee jump with them in the afternoon. On hiatus from producing The Maury Povich Show in Manhattan where they convince otherwise normal people to air their dirty laundry on national television, Alyson and Lindsey are using their charms to convince Scott to leap off a 120 foot tower with nothing but rubber bands attached to his ankles. I’ve let pretty smiles con me into doing some rather silly things in the past, but not even these lovely young ladies could talk me into taking that plunge!

Pura Vida!

P.S. Turns out a margarita is pepperoni and tomato pizza!



June 29, 2008
Claro de Luna Bed & Breakfast
St. Elena, Costa Rica

Hola,

One of the local guides contrasted the Tico lifestyle with our North American attitude - “In the U.S. you say, ‘Just do it.’ In Costa Rica we say, ‘Just do it. But do it later.’” Caught somewhere between the two, Scott wavered Friday morning on the subject of bungee jumping. When the time came though, the Chicka’s applied a large dose of peer pressure and Scott stuck to his roots - he just did it. He bungee jumped off a 120 foot platform erected in the middle of town (apparently whitewater rafting, canyoneering, kayaking, mountain biking, ATVing, and volcano hot tub waterslides aren’t enough excitement for La Fortuna.) As Scott stood at the precipice high over my terra firma vantage point, I was struck by how incomprehensible bungee jumping was to me. Why would anyone want to do this? Anxiously, excitedly I watched Scott raise his hands above his head, lean off the platform, and plunge downward. After the initial fall, he bounced up and down, swung back and forth, and twisted left and right before finally being lowered back to earth with an incredulous “Did-I-just-did-that?” smile on his face. I was very proud, not for what he did, but for facing his fears and his doubts and having the guts to Just Do It!

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La Fortuna

Our day began with “canyoneering” down a narrow ravine cut in to the lower reaches of Arenal Volcano by a cool clear stream. We hiked, hopped, climbed and jumped from pool to pool. When the stream had no where to go but straight down, we repelled right down the middle of the water falls! While dropping nearly 200 feet through the misty jungle air, the guide above swung us back and forth through the free falling water! Somehow Brooke managed to make a connection between this adventure and rafting in Canada (one time I rafted in the Ottawa River…).

In the afternoon the group paid, Santos, a local naturalist, to guide us on a hike through a private reserve in the shadows of Volcan Arenal. Oblivious to the constant heavy rain, he pointed out the unique plants and wildlife of the region, including a small orange snake delicately coiled on a small tree branch. The scent of tiny flowers from one of the trees reminded me of my grandmother's orange tree blossoms. While serenaded by the constant guttural growls of hidden Howler Monkeys, Santos taught us the difference in annual rainfall between the lower elevation rainforest (6 feet) and La Fortuna’s Tropical Wet Forest (15 feet). Wet is wet and after that afternoon’s deluge, they only need another six inches or so for the rest of the year!

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Arenal Volcano

As the evening grew darker and Santos searched for a good spot to view the glowing red lava flow, Michelle kept qualifying any promises of actually sighting the lava. “If the weather cooperates…If the rain lets up,” she admonished time and time again, apparently nervous we would be devastatingly disappointed if she didn’t come through on her efforts to deliver the awesome sight. We never did see the lava flow or red glowing sky, but I heard the deep rumbling of pyroclastic lava boulders as they tumbled down the volcano's side in an avalanche of lava, gases, and ash while fireflies danced in the night air nearby.

Some of us have been comparing our native colloquiums. Tico's say, "Pura vida," after an exciting experience and we learned from Carolina that Finnish say "Keva! The Canadians offered, “Wicked!” while our east coast friends suggested, "In a New York minute." I couldn’t come up with a good California exclamation. Cowabunga seems a bit dated. Any one of these phrases could be used to describe the day we left La Fortuna.

I awoke at 5:30 AM Saturday morning, hoping to see Arenal’s peak before the daily cloud cover enveloped in, but it was cloaked in rain clouds before the sun came up. Rather than crawl back to bed, I decided to take advantage of the solitude and wander around this town of a few thousand people. In an intermittent drizzle, I strolled through the square as the town woke up and the locals began moving toward work and school. It took a bit of hunting (more than you might expect in this land of coffee), but I found a soda serving piping hot java.

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La Fortuna

In the past, the trip from La Fortuna to our next stop, St. Elena, was a five hour circuitous drive around mountainous country due to the lack of serviceable roads. A few years back someone realized visitors like us would pay extra to shorten the journey traveling by boat, horse, and jeep. After a hearty desayuna tipico, we all crossed to the far side of Lago Arenal (Lake Arenal) where saddled horses were and waiting for us. The rainy 30 minute boat ride was uneventful, but the horses left lasting impressions-one on my right buttock and one on my left buttock. The scenery along the shore of Lago Arenal would have been a beautiful if it hadn’t passed in galloping blur. The jeeps waiting at the end of the trail looked suspiciously like minivans, but the last leg of the journey, a two hour drive through steep dairy country was the best. Over mountain passes and through rocky canyons, we passed emerald green farms and isolated homesteads. Along the way we stopped at the crossroads town of Los Dos (The Twos) and lunched at a roadside café offering a variety of casadas-simple meals with beans and rice (of course), vegetables and an entrée. Typically simple meals, casadas are inexpensive and filling, and are almost always topped off with a sweet fried plantain.

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Arenal Lake

Nestled in Costa Rica’s northern Tilaran Mountains, St. Elena has changed little since my last visit. It's still just one block long. But we didn’t come to see the town. We came to visit the cloud forest just above it. A private reserve, Reserva Biological Monteverde (Monteverde Biological Reserve) was established over sixty years ago by a group of Quakers fleeing persecution in the U.S. After four Quakers were jailed in Alabama for refusing to be drafted into the Korean War, 11 families left the U.S. and settled in military free Costa Rica. The rich soil and mild climate of St. Elena was ideal for dairy farming and, recognizing the need to preserve the watershed above their grazing land, the Quakers purchased and preserved 3700 acres of cloud shrouded forest in what has since become the Reserva Biologica Monteverde. Naturalists began flocking to the verdant forest after a 1983 National Geographic article on the rarely seenResplendent Quetzal Bird. Descendant of the original Quaker families are still farming their dairies, and shipping gourmet cheeses all over the world.

Over dinner at Morphos, Mike and Angela shared stories about their extensive family travels in Europe, including numerous visits to family in Scandinavia. Given so many opportunities to explore the world, it was easy to see why Michael and Jenn shared a quiet confidence that makes traveling easier. Comparing their hometown climate to Costa Rica, Daddy Gratz described Minneapolis’s seasons as winter and road construction. In between, Blondie and Aqua Jenn fit in man seasons of competitive swimming that took them to meets all over the U.S.. As the conversation drifted to past group tour experiences, Brooke, who I don’t think had ever been south of the Ottawa River, offered her opinion. Our troupe, she decided, lacked that non-stop talker who always has to put in their two cents worth that is common to most groups.

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After a few drinks, the conversation naturally gravitated towards relationships. The Chickas were particularly interested in Michelle’s dalliances with past guests. Company rules forbid fraternizing with guests, but she was quick to admit that if every solo male traveler weren’t a nerd, she would be open to a holiday romance. I immediately protested, having traveled alone on group tours in the past. Michelle promised to reserve judgment on me until the end of the trip. As dinner finished up, Michelle flitted about the room trying to excite everyone about the evening’s activity. No visit to St. Elena without a visit to it’s one and only night spot, so she insisted everyone, young and old alike, head over to the Centro de Amigo’s discothèque after dinner to help her relive her days as a Toronto nightclub Go-Go dancer.

The minimum drinking age in Costa Rica is 16, but that seems to be more of a guideline than a law, so the bouncer didn’t look twice at Scott or Michael while collecting their cover charge. I was hoping for some rock and roll standards like they were playing back at Backpacker’s Tranquilio, but the DJ played a mix of Latin, Hip-Hop, and Salsa. Knowing quite well this white man can’t dance; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to embarrass my son. Imagine his horror, watching me “get jiggy wit’ it.” Eventually everyone took a spin or two on the noisy dance floor, except for Veronica. She sat at the bar moping while Robby danced with others, earning herself a new nickname - Miss Cranky Pants. It took a few songs, but by now the Chickas were fairly adept at goading Scott into action and they got him on the dance floor. It helped that Lindsay has a winsome 22 year old smile that could motivate a legion of teenage boys into action. After several tunes, Scott very disconsolately exclaimed to me, “I dance like you!”

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Centro de Amigos

This morning began with an early visit to the Monteverde Reserve, where strict entrance quotas fill up early. Our trek through the cloud forest was guided by a local naturalist. Korki professed no formal secondary education, but he had a wealth of knowledge about the abundant flora and fauna. He once spent three hours with a botanist/ornithologist couple from the states and only got 10 yards meter into the diverse reserve!

I was amazed by a giant Strangling Fig tree. Beginning as a seed dropped into a crook of a host tree, Korki explained, the fig sent a series of vine like roots to the soil 70 feet below. After many years the encompassing roots fused to form a massive trunk around the host tree. Hollywood’s best set designers couldn’t have created a more surrealistic jungle tree, including the moss covered vines and ferns growing out of every nook and cranny. Elephant Ear plants, whose large veiny leaves resemble a pachyderm’s big ears, completed the set. Michelle pointed out her favorite plant - Mimosa. “It’s beautiful and does amazing things,” she exclaimed and as she touched it the long feathery leaves curled up. Korki was unable to find a Resplendent Quetzal whose iridescent green and blue plumage was the mark Mayan gods, but we saw several other species of birds as well as colorful tarantulas. Our three hour walk concluded under a tree full of Howler Monkeys not too shy to make their presence known with their aerial antics.

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Korki

After our visit to the cloud forest, we took a short bus ride to the zip lines, Costa Rica’s signature adventure. Two years ago a fear of heights almost convinced me to skip traversing the series of suspension cables stretching over one mile high above the jungle. Fortunately, I faced my fears then and today I eagerly awaited the exhilarating experience. My favorite cable, over 1500 feet long, sends you soaring 200 feet above the forest canopy. The view is amazing and the thrill is totally unique. The 50 foot Tarzan swing at the end, one of Michelle’s surprises, coaxes any remaining adrenalin out of your system.

The group as a whole is pretty exhausted from the last four days' adventures. Scott skipped dinner and was out before sunset. My rafting bruises are beginning to recede, but they’re being replaced with new aches and pains. I’m hoping our five hour drive tomorrow to Quepos on the Pacific Coast will give me an opportunity to recuperate.

Pura Vida!

Posted by SChandler 16:00 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica 2008, Part 2

July 1-4

Tuesday July 1, 2008
Dos Locos Cafe
Quepos, Costa Rica

Buenos Noches,

Our Costa Rican adventure is winding down; most of the thrills are behind us. I haven't donned a helmet or been trussed up in a harness in two days! We’ll be finishing our geographic circle today, returning to San Jose. Tomorrow we fly home and already I’m beginning to reflect on the adventures of the past nine days. I imagine bungee jumping will certainly remain high on Scott’s list of memories. I've enjoyed the thrills, too, but it's been the simpler experiences, the glimpses into Tico life that I will remember best.

When Scott showed no signs of stirring from his nap Sunday evening, Michelle suggested I join her for dinner at Antojito’s, an out of the way soda recommended locally for a good Costa Rican meal. The first clue this small restaurant wasn't on the tourist circuit came when, as we approached in the dark rain, Antojito himself unlatched the front door and greeted us warmly. There were just three small tables ranged around the empty room; a rocking chair was sitting in front of a corner television.

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Antojito's

I chose the chicken casada from the simple one page menu, particularly looking forward to the beans and rice. After passing our orders to the woman working alone in the kitchen, Antojito gave us an approving smile and relaxed in his rocking chair. While he watched Lord of the Rings dubbed in Spanish, Michelle shared the story of how she came to be a tour leader in Costa Rica.

A Filipino-Canadian raised in Toronto, Michelle backpacked across Europe after graduating high school. She returned to Canada and earned a degree in computer science, working several years selling the latest technology to Torontans. She said she grew weary of the vicious back stabbing world of sales people and decided to give up the lucrative life and see more of the world. She visited family in the Philippine Islands and wandered across Australia. When a boyfriend abandoned her during an Alaska trek, Michelle had to beg her way back to Toronto.

Soon after returning home, Michelle learned of an international tour company seeking Central American guides and immediately applied. She said she concluded her interview with an ultimatum, “Hire me on the spot or I’m taking another job offer.” Fortunately it was an offer he couldn’t refuse (there was no other job offer). So, despite a complete lack of the Spanish language, she was soon off to Guatemala and enrolled in a two week Spanish language emersion course. Before the Alaskan boyfriend chill had completely thawed she was fluently leading tours up and down Central America. Listening to her story, Michelle reminded me of her favorite plant – beautiful and does amazing things, so I nicknamed her “Mimosa.”

Mimosa’s story was interrupted by a man entering the restaurant. Greeted warmly by Antojito, the newcomer gave us a smiling nod, spoke briefly to Antojito’s wife in the kitchen and, before settled down to watch the movie with a soda taken from the corner cooler. As the room filled with the aroma of broiling chicken, I knew how fortunate I was Michelle brought me to that little restaurant. I thanked her and she said her job’s greatest joy is watching others discover the world. Twice as we ate our casadas, a young boy was sent out with a plate tightly wrapped in foil. Apparently Antojito delivers. The simple meal was filling, but it was the warm atmosphere of the family soda that was truly satisfying. As we left the tiny soda I felt as Mimosa and I just shared a family meal with Antojito and his kin.

Fanny Bridge, in Northern California, got its name because of what passing motorists see as people lean over the railing to watch the huge fish swimming in the river below. CR Route 34, between St. Elena and Quepos, has a similar bridge. Another of Michelle’s surprises, we stopped Monday morning, on our way to the coast, to watch crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank below and to show our fannies to the passing motorists and truck drivers. Although said to be more aggressive than alligators, the giant reptiles remained motionless, apparently oblivious to cattle grazing nearby. Somewhere east of St. Elena, Miss Sunny Dress (a.k.a. Veronica, a.k.a. Miss Cranky pants) rejoined our group. She and Robby passed the travel time playing teenage kissy face in the back row of the coach. Michelle and I agreed we preferred her anti-social persona.

Quepos takes its name from the Quepoa people who, before passing out of existence by the 19th century due to European disease and slavery, inhabited the region. The hot beach town, now six square blocks of shops and sodas, grew up on the banana industry during the last century. Today, however, most of the locals work in restaurants and resorts dotting the road to nearby Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuael Antonio National Park). Despite being the smallest park in the Costa Rican national system, it enjoys a wealth of diverse wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, and a variety of birds.

We (or was it I?) decided we’d had enough adventures for one vacation, so despite the lure of the Manuel Antonio’s white sand beaches and warm water, we spent our first afternoon in Quepos relaxing by the roof top pool of our hotel. White-water rafting, repelling down waterfalls, hiking up volcanoes in the rain, zip lining across rainforest canyons, discotequing, and horseback riding in seven days wore us out and relaxing in this beachside town was just what we (or was it I?) needed. We lunched at Chicken on the Run, an oh-so greasy fried chicken stand where I ordered various pieces by pointing to my own anatomy (legs and wings were easy; ordering a half-breast was a bit tricky). In the evening the group dined at El Avion, a restaurant featuring one of Ollie North's Iran-Contra Fairchild C123 cargo plane abandoned at the San Jose airport when it’ sister ship was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986.

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Quepos

After breakfast at a sidewalk soda across the street from our hotel Tuesday morning, Scott and I parted ways. I joined a few of the others on a kayak tour of the mangroves. Hoping to see some Costa Rican wildlife, our guided paddle took us down the Damas River and up various channels through the mangroves in search of boa constrictors, monkeys, and sloths. Sharing a boat with Aqua-Jenn, I learned all about her extended stay in France – exorbitant prices, snobby Parisians, and the expansive Louvre. I sensed a contrast between a girl holding onto a carefree youth and a woman trying to fit in with the mature crowd; she seems afraid of losing the joy of non-responsibility while embracing adulthood. We managed to find three different species of mangrove (black, green & white), but none of the exciting animals. Our guide, Rambo Tico, claimed to have seen a crocodile but I think that was just another fish story. It was a pleasant three hour tour, but in the end I wished I had spent the morning relaxing on the beach where monkeys are as common as squirrels back home.

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Manuel Antonio National Park

After returning to Quepos, I caught the first bus to the beach, hoping to catch Scott “hang ten.” While taxis charge $20,000 CRC ($10 USD) for the 15 minute ride, public buses make the same trip for only $1.15 CRC ($0.20 USD). During one ride, we saw two women openly breast feeding babies, taking no care to cover their nakedness; they were oblivious to the few tourists along for the ride. Preferring surf lessons with Blondie and the Chickas to kayaking, Scott spent the morning at the beach. Unfortunately I was too late to catch him riding any waves, so we spent the remainder of the afternoon wading in the warm Pacific surf with the Chickas, Robby, and Mel Dog. Veronica sat brooding on the beach. Miss Cranky Pants, obviously upset, was once again on the down swing. She refused our numerous invitations to join us in the water; we were all growing quite weary of her theatrics. Before long she disappeared and wasn’t seen until the following morning. She wasn’t missed.

After a few hours in the tropical sun, several of us gathered for happy hour at Coconuts overlooking the beachfront road teeming with local artisans and t-shirt hawkers before our traditional surf side BBQ dinner. It was a delicious meal of chicken and pork with, of course, beans and rice, prepared at hand by a local family. Fortunately the picnic tables were covered because the skies opened up just as we sat to eat and served us a torrential downpour. Michelle would not allow the rain to dampen our spirits, however, and insisted on stringing up the candy laden piñata she brought along to celebrate Canada Day.

Wicked!

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July 4, 2008
Home
Elk Grove, California

Mucho Gracias,

I found Quepos to be a combination of the laid back attitude common to so many beach side towns and the Tico “just do it later” lifestyle. If not for the 90 degree weather (99% humidity) this would be paradise. After just two days in this sleepy little town nestled between a sea wall and the hills of a national park, I was sold on the simple Quepos life. Unfortunately the quiet peace instilled by this seaside village would soon be shattered by the rush of our real lives.

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Quepos bus depot

After letting Scott sleep late our second day in Quepos, we caught a late morning bus to Manuel Antonio Park to spend the few remaining hours on the beach before our drive back to San Jose. It wasn’t too surprising to see Carolina flag the bus down along the jungle road. Despite a quiet shy demeanor and halting English, she’s proven to be an intrepid spirit, breaking from the group often in search of her own adventures. The day we arrived in St. Elena, while the rest of us were cleaning up from the boat-horse-minivan excursion, Carolina found a local to guide her through a reptile zoo. At the end of the bus ride, she joined Scott and me for a walk along Manuel Antonio’s main trail. We passed a towering stand of bamboo and caught glimpses of Howler monkeys high in the trees above. And there is no better symbol of the Quepos than the sleepy slow moving sloth we saw lumbering in a tree just off the path.

While Carolina continued on, Scott and I stopped at the second of three beaches inside the park. Having grown up in Northern California where the ocean is bracingly cold, it is always a joy to step in a warm tropical sea. Scott and I were immediately in the water, once again enjoying the Pacific waves. After a time, I ventured down a jungle path and was treated to the frolicking play of a dozen or so white-faced capuchin monkeys, several of whom deliberately poised for my camera.

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Manuel Antonio National Park

It was tough to leave the sparkling ocean but we returned to Quepos in time for a refreshing rinse in the hotel pool before the four hour coach ride back to San Jose. As our fellow travelers slowly congregated, I thought more about the dynamics of group travel. A private cup of coffee in a street side café that morning was one of few moments I had away from the group during the last eight days. Aside from one or two possible candidates for being voted off the tour, the group bonded well and I've enjoyed sharing this adventure with them. Having Blondie and Aqua-Jenn along made a big difference for Scott and I enjoyed getting to know Mommy & Daddy Gratz. Scott definitely developed a mutual affinity with the Chickas and Carolina’s Finnish outlook gave us all a different perspective. And, if the truth be told, Veronica’s dual personality was entertaining at times and gave us something to talk about. From Michelle, each of us learned so much, not just about Costa Rica, but about relaxing, being flexible, and enjoying the adventures as they came.

In the end, though, I think the journey would have been better shared with fewer people. Too often “group think” took over in harmful ways, like how at times we mistreated Brooke’s social handicaps. In addition, the group travel and frequent activities detracted from the challenge of self reliance in the face of new discoveries. If adventures in a tropical destination are what you seek, then I highly recommend this itinerary. It’s been eight days of non-stop excitement and group fun. However, if a quiet cultural tour of a third world country is more your style, then perhaps one of this operator’s less active trips focusing more on sights will be more to your liking.

We were back in San Jose for our last day in Costa Rica. After some of our new friends departed for early morning flights to Florida, Minnesota, and destinations beyond, Michelle joined Scott and I for some last minute souvenir shopping. He particularly wanted to wander the Mercado Central again and she promised to find him a spinning thumb ring. As we wandered the center of town I took notice of how easily Mimosa related to someone 15 years younger as to someone at the other end of that spectrum. She led us to several downtown markets and it was easy to see Scott appreciated her determination to find his ring. In the Plaza de Cultura, a trio of gentlemen was picking Tico folk music on guitars. I picked up a CD of their music as my only souvenir of our journey. Even as I was enjoying these last moments of paradise with Scott and Michelle, though, our departure hour loomed and I felt my holiday high quickly ebbing away. Thoughts of catching flights, making connections, and all those tasks piling up at home were crowding out the Tico “do it later” attitude. It was with no little regret that I embraced Mimosa and said goodbye to Costa Rica. Unfortunately we were thrust back into the “just do it now” pace even before left Costa Rican soil.

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Avenida Central

In my years of traveling, I've never been late for a flight or missed a connection, but because the flight out of San Jose was delayed, our 90 minute window for clearing immigration and customs was suddenly cut in half. We knew we would have to run from gate to gate as soon as we touched down or face spending a night in the airport. What we didn't know was that nearly everyone else on our flight was in the same predicament.

When I was 13, on a vacation to the East Coast, my family quietly awaited our train from New York City to Vermont in Grand Central Station. When it was announced half of Manhattan made a mad dash through the terminal to our platform. I thought we were going to be trampled. Disembarking in Houston brought those fears flooding back, I relived that childhood trauma. Among the first to get off the plane, Scott and I, with one eye on the clock and all our baggage on our backs, began trotting through the terminal. But before long, though, we were overtaken by passengers seated dozens of rows behind us and it became a mad dash down George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s Concourse E that would make O.J. Simpson proud

Thanks, in part, to the advice of an airline counter attendant's advice in San Jose to carry on all our luggage, Scott and I breezed through customs and arrived at our connecting gate just in time to board. Running through an airport after spending the day in the tropical humidity, however, is not favorable for a three hour close quarters airplane ride! Carry-on luggage with one last clean shirt came in handy as I'm sure our fellow passengers would attest. Sometime after midnight Scott and I finally, wearily arrived made it home.

The rewards of traveling are as limitless as are the travelers themselves. I love discovering the sights and sounds of distant lands while experiencing the people who inhabit them. As I hugged Scott goodnight, I was again reminded of the most rewarding reason. Ten days ago, while driving to the airport, Scott flipped through his passport admiring all the foreign stamps. He turned to me and, in a tone of slight disbelief, said, “I’m so lucky you take me to all these places.” Ten days later, as our last long day ended and I thanked him for sharing the adventure of Costa Rica with me, he replied, "Are you kidding? Thank you for taking me on such a great trip!" Scott He really gets it, he truly appreciates these opportunities to discover the world and for me that is the greatest reward.

Thanks for sharing our adventure!

Pura Vida!

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Posted by SChandler 16:00 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Asia 2007

August 6, 2007
Elk Grove, California

It’s been nearly 20 years since my first international adventure, a trip to Panama while working for Uncle Sam, but the inspiration to travel goes all the way back to early childhood. I have vague memories of a six week family journey across the United States in a Ford station wagon towing a travel trailer when I was five. What possessed to two otherwise sane adults to pack five kids, ages five to 15, in a car for six weeks, I’ll never know. But the journeys didn’t end there, my parents just upgraded the mode of transportation. There was the train adventure to the East Coast when I was 12, a trip to Hawaii when I was 13, and a visit to our nation’s capital at age 14. My parents’ traveled farther abroad after becoming empty-nesters - Europe, Alaska, and the Caribbean. I hope to pass along that same passion for travel, for exploration and discovery, to my own son. When Scott was eleven, I had the pleasure of sending him off on a five day non-stop field trip to Washington D.C. Two years ago we visited Orlando; last summer it was New York and Boston. Tomorrow we will venture farther from home and deeper into the world-Asia.

This will be Scott’s first true international journey. Although he has crossed our country’s borders several times, Cozumel when he was seven and Jamaica two years later, I don’t consider those resorts true international destinations; all-inclusives are too adapted to American visitors. But tomorrow, we depart San Francisco International Airport on an eleven hour flight that will literally take us half way around the world, a world to which we will have to adapt. Our initial destination is Atlantis SCUBA Resort, Puerto Galera, on the Philippine island of Mindoro. After four days of diving, beachcombing, and relaxing, we will continue our adventure in Tokyo for four more days of urban hiking and exploring.

Scott remarked recently how difficult it was to believe the time of our much anticipated trip is upon us. The months of abstract planning quickly progressed into something real, something here and now. I was reminded of my own adolescent anticipation of a trip to Hawaii, that "Christmas is coming" state of mind. Instead of sugar plums dancing in our heads, our visions will be of warm clear South China Seas and bustling neon Tokyo streets.

August 10, 2007
Heritage Hotel
Manila, Philippines

Parents have always recorded milestones in their children’s lives-first steps, first day of school, often devoting entire books to documenting them. While ordering a meal in a foreign country for the first time may not seem as momentous as a baby’s first words, ordering in a foreign language, with foreign currency, for the first time is an accomplishment. Today, in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, Scott bought a Chicken McNugget meal. During my first trip to Asia, I followed the evening flow of a crowd through a Singapore market and I ordered my first meal, some strange noodle dish, from a food stall with just a couple gestures. I came away with not only a delicious meal, but the knowledge that I could do this. I could adapt to a foreign environment. McDonald’s in any country is still McDonald’s (substitute rice for French fries), but hopefully Scott will discover from simple experiences like this the confidence and courage to discover the world.

Sailors, too, have ways to mark milestones unique to them. First voyages and first equator crossings are traditionally marked by the shaving of heads. I’ve yet to cross the equator, but I did have my own head shorn aboard the Andrea C the first day out of Puerto Rica bound for Panama. Many travelers aren’t quite so drastic, choosing instead to have companions sign a dollar bill as a keepsake. Perhaps there should be some a ritual for crossing the International Dateline, something more than the usual ponderance "How can it be Thursday if we left home yesterday on Tuesday?" Scott and I wrestled with that question while chasing the setting sun west for eleven hours and somewhere over the North Pacific we lost one day from our calendar but only one hour from our clock. The time was filled with reading, sleeping, and card playing. Thank goodness for on-demand movies! A two hour lay over in Tokyo gave us the opportunity to exercise our aching legs and buy that first international Happy Meal. After another five hour flight south fromTokyo, we finally reached Manila.

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Manila

Perhaps it was Scott's long blond hair that drew so many curious looks when we wandered the streets around our Manila hotel early this morning or maybe it was simply because we were the only non-Filipinos around. Within a few minutes walk, we saw gutters clogged with trash and dead vermin, air heavy with black smog, traffic choked streets, and a lot of poverty. Scott and I were repeatedly approached by whimpering children with outstretched hands; many were naked. I knew the Philippines to be a poor country, but I was not prepared for such a stark display of poverty and I wondered about its impression on Scott. It was impossible not to feel sorry for these kids while at the same time wonder if passing out a few coins would really improve their lives or simply perpetuate a cycle of poverty. We didn’t have any local currency (Pesos) and I wasn't about to start passing out US $20 bills, so we did our best to ignore their pleas. It was difficult to look past the boy with clouded eyes. Fortunately, a warm tropic rain developed and I let it chase us back to the hotel where we awaited the next leg of our journey-a two hour van ride to the southern coast and one hour boat ride to Mindoro.


August 13, 2007
Atlantis Resort
Puerta Galera, Philippines

We found Nemo! He’s down here just off Sabang Beach in the Verde Island Passage faithfully guarding his sea anemone against any would be intruders-including SCUBA divers. Not so friendly in person, Nemo actually darted at Scott's outstretched hand, apparently not recognizing it as a friendly, curious gesture. We’ve spent the last three days exploring the coral gardens of Mindoro's northern coast while discovering our own limits. From the day this SCUBA diving trip was conceived during evening meals at home in Elk Grove, I knew I would constantly be nervous underwater. From that first back roll off the outrigger boat with our dive master, Rusty, I hovered over Scott like a tropical fish guarding an anemone, carefully watching his every movement.

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Sabang Beach, Puerta Galera

Diving at 40 feet, the maximum depth of our first dives is neither difficult nor dangerous, but it does require constant attention to conditions and equipment. Scott's first dives in over two years were a constant battle with himself and his equipment-leaky masking, buoyancy problems, and unwieldy equipment. My struggle was internal, trying not to be like Nemo. As the days progressed, though, and the weather turned from overcast grey to beautiful blue skies, Scott's comfort level increased. His budding confidence became more apparent when his diving skills became second nature and he began to actively explore the ocean. As his underwater poise grew, so did mine. I hardly fretted over him during our last dives. We made several dives, exploring ship wrecks and coral reefs. Thanks to Rusty's experienced eye, each trip below brought new and fascinating sea creatures - banded sea snakes, eels, lionfish, and octopuses (or is it octopi?). Watching Scott discover, and excitedly point out, several large color changing cuttlefish was the highlight of my underwater adventure.


August 14, 2007
Atlantis Resort
Puerta Galera, Philippines

Several years ago I spent a week on a live-aboard dive boat in the Turks & Caicos Islands. It was my dream SCUBA vacation-non stop pampered diving; I didn’t have to do anything except dive, eat and relax. It was a wonderful experience, but something was missing. In the isolation of the boat, I got no sense of the culture of the land, of the people. I’ve since decided to devote as much time discovering the world above the waves as below. Over dinner a few nights after our arrival, Scott and I reflected on our adventures. When he asked what I thought was the most interesting sight of the day, I answered by first defining interesting. Rather than characterizing it as the most unusual sight like the frogfish clinging to a staghorn coral or the frog skin purse hanging in the local market, I offered the experience I would share most with others back home - meeting John-John, Jaron, & Gilbert at Tamaraw.

After our second morning of diving, Scott and I decided it was time to see some of the island. We rented a motor bike (insisting on two helmets) and, with a sketchy map, set out to find Tamaraw Falls. Along the way we explored the town of Puerto Galera and I introduced Scott to the village of Sanandigan. The windy road from Sabang Beach to the town is narrow and heavily traveled by Jeepneys, those colorfully painted U.S. military surplus transports turned into public transportation. Although I've got some experience riding a motorcycle, this was an unfamiliar bike on an unfamiliar road with my son on the back, so we took our time riding the few kilometers to Puerto Galera, taking in the roadside fruit and vegetable stands and makeshift homes along the way.

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The road to Tamaraw Falls

When we reached the center of town, little more than a crossroads where a yellow-shirted man directed traffic, we took a left according to our directions. At the outskirts of Puerto Galera, the road's center line ended, followed quickly by the asphalt giving way to hard packed rock and road construction dust. Like Scott’s underwater confidence, my riding poise improved and I was soon dodging potholes and passing earth laden trucks. We passed several road construction crews widening the road and digging drainage ditches and I was struck by the contrast to Cal-Trans. Advance construction methods like traffic control haven’t reached this corner of the world and we were left to our own cunning to navigate the maze of backhoes, graders, and road rollers, any one of which would have translated to a 20 minute delay back home. When we had gone further than described and were nervously close to half a tank (the nearest gas was back in Puerto Galera), we stopped to ask a crewman if we were on the right road to the waterfall. He simply turned and pointed across the ravine to a tall cascade partially obscured by the dense jungle. We found Tamaraw Falls.

From high above, the water fell 100 feet from a vanishing edge into a clear pool beside the highway. It crossed beneath a bridge and dropped again, into a man made pool below where children were splashing and laughing. The heat and humidity were stifling, so Scott and I gladly paid the PhP $20 (USD $0.45) admittance fee to the public swimming hole. Four boys playing in the first pool that we came to immediately stopped their games. They watched us quietly, suspiciously, but I knew how to break the ice. The children on Sabang Beach happily hammed for my camera during a visit several years earlier, so I simply gestured with my camera and the four swimmers were soon posing for pictures. Before long they were doing flips and somersaults. Scott felt a bit foolish when I asked the boys to pose with him, but it’s a great picture, one I will always treasure. The boys did not speak English, so I got out a Tagalog translation book and introduced Scott and myself. They introduced themselves as John-John, Jaron, and Gilbert. The fourth boy, a bit older and too shy to pose for the camera, didn’t share his name. After sharing their pictures with the boys, Scott and I climbed down to a lower, larger pool and enjoyed the cool water spring water.

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The Boys of Tamaraw Falls

Back in Puerto Galera, we gassed up the motorbike and took a walk along the main street, visiting the shops and markets. As we passed an outdoor butcher’s stall, a young man called out "one picture, mister!” – the universal cry for "take my picture!" I first heard in an Indonesian spice market. I took his picture, and then Scott took one of me with him in front of a fly specked side of beef. Scott with the boys of Tamaraw Falls, me with the butcher! After a soda and beer at a quiet roadside restaurant attended by a young couple, Scott and I rode the narrow road back to Sabang Beach. But our ride was not over. From the Sabang road, I turned the bike down a side road, past the local fruit and fish stands, and up to the village of Sanandigan. I was looking for Hilary's house.

During my last visit to Puerto Galera and Sabang Beach four years ago, I met an Irish woman working as a Dive Master at the resort, who, despite her 20-something youth, had traveled the world. I was fortunate to cross paths with Hilary in Asia where she shared a side of the local life, Sanandigan in the early morning, I would never have found on my own. I walked this road only twice before (once in a mystical midnight rain), but after 4 years I still was able to pick my way up the road and down a couple side lanes. My faded memory was serving well, when I recognized the last path, a particularly steep culvert, as it suddenly appeared from around a bend. Without hesitation, I gassed the motorbike and headed up the pathway.

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Puerta Galera

There are moments when throwing caution to the wind reaps rewards, like that evening when Hilary invited me top see the sun rise over Sanandigan. In sober daylight, though, caution would have better served Scott and I. Half way up the path the motorbike lost power and sputtered. I applied the brakes as hard as I could to keep us from rolling backward, but the hill was too steep. I yelled at Scott to jump off as the bike began to slip back, but he couldn't move fast enough and the bike toppled on top us in the tall weeds alongside the path. I panicked, having just dumped a motorbike on top of my son in a remote Filipino village god knows how far from the nearest medical facility, and wrenched the bike off of him as quickly as I could, fearing a broken bone or worse injury. Luckily Scott escaped with only a minor burn. With the motorcycle safely parked at the bottom of the culvert, Scott and I hiked up the last part and found Hilary's hilltop home. As we stood at the garden gate and surveyed the panoramic view of the island and the sparkling ocean, I shared my epiphanic moment with Hilary.

Over dinner on a veranda overlooking the beach, Hilary shared her life of adventure-traveling Europe, South America, Australia, and now Asia. I was enamored with the confidence she possessed to journey across the world alone. After sharing several bottles of wine and accepting her invitation, Hilary bargained with a slightly drunk jeepney driver in Tagalog for a ride up the hill to Sanandigan. My senses reeled with the sounds of the waves on the beach, the aroma of fishing frying in a nearby restaurant, and the warm tropical rain falling on us, and I was amazed by how easily this young single woman traveled the world and adapting to new environments. At that moment, on a midnight Sabang Beach street corner, I decided I would no longer let my ignorance of the world, my fear of the unknown, keep me from discovering it.

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Atlantis Resort Card Shark

A few nights later, alone in a Manila hotel room, I looked out the window at the busy city ten floors below. Before meeting Hilary I would have stayed in that safe air-conditioned room and wondered what it was like outside. Instead, on that humid November night in 2003, half a world from home, I put aside my fears and went outside…alone…and discovered the world around me. I’m told Hilary has since returned to Ireland, married to a marine biologist, and is attending a university. She made it clear when we parted on the beach four years ago that ours was only a holiday romance, but she made a much greater impact on me than that. I hope Scott caught some of that inspiration at the garden gate to Hilary's house.

A bit battered and bruised, Scott and I returned to Sabang Beach and spent the remainder of the day, and much of the next, wandering the same shops, bargaining for more pirated DVDs, and relaxing by the pool. Our last evening at Atlantis Resort was spent in the hotel’s beachside bar, where Scott amazed the staff and fellow divers with a few of his card tricks while a group of Japanese divers got drunk on beer bongs.


August 15, 2007
Grand New Prince Takanawa Hotel
Tokyo, Japan

While visiting Singapore, I developed a wonderful habit of spending my mornings at a coffee shop near a busy mall. I would while away the first hours of each day reading a book and sipping coffee before setting off to explore some new part of that island country. Each day in Sabang Beach started in a similar fashion. Scott adapted to the 15 hour time difference quicker than I, easily sleeping past dawn. I, however, was awake each day before first light and spent the solitude quietly on our patio with a fresh cup of coffee and a book. On the morning before our departure from Puerta Galera, after lazily strolling through the shops one last time, Scott suggested we return to our ocean view room and read. I readily agreed, thinking he was becoming the perfect travel companion-SCUBA diving, reading and relaxing.

Arriving in Tokyo yesterday afternoon hot, hungry, and travel weary, Scott and I wandered the neon streets of the Shinjuku ward looking for someplace to eat, someplace that appealed to both of us; someplace offering traditional noodle dishes and pizza. The humidity took its toll and we both had grown quite irritable and I swear he was taking delight in disagreeing with every one of my suggestions. Finally, at about 9:00 PM, we found Anna Miller's American Food. There was no rice or ramen on the menu, but the sandwiches were very good (as well they should for USD $30!) Our hunger was satisfied, but we were still very tired and, despite the late hour, the humidity didn't show any signs of abating, so we ended the night early.

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Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo

Our long journey to the Shinjuku ward, which served as the back drop for Bill Murray's Lost in Translation, began with a dawn flight from Manila. We reached the The Philippines’ capital late the night before thanks to a very rough crossing of Verde Island Passage from Puerta Galera to Batanges and a four hour traffic-choked drive into the city. At the airport this morning we passed through nine different security checks between the parking lot and the plane itself - a visual inspection of our taxi, x-raying our luggage at the terminal door, hand inspection of our carry on bags, etc., etc., etc. The security ladies at the last checkpoint kept giggling and looking at Scott while searching our backpacks. Feeling a bit self conscious, I asked why they were laughing. Apparently another teenage boy with long hair passed through their check point just moments before and I think she was insinuating that we all look alike. We saw very few other boys with long hair in the Philippines (long locks aren’t very practical in the humid environment), so Scott got plenty of curious looks everywhere we went.

After our four hour flight to Tokyo and a 90 minute bus ride into the city, we reached our hotel late yesterday afternoon and promptly set out to master Tokyo’s public transportation. If New York's subway system is mapped like a plate of colorful spaghetti, then Tokyo's system is three separate plates of rainbow ramen labeled in Japanese script! It is very confusing, but after a few missteps and a wrong ticket (wrong plate), we finally reached the Shinjuku ward.

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Tokyo subway

There are many stark contrasts between Tokyo and the Philippines. Puerto Galera was rough roads and poverty. Tokyo is immaculate asphalt and prosperity. We've not been hounded once by street vendors selling necklaces, watches, or pirated DVDs since leaving the Philippines. In Puerto Galera we paid PhP $35 (USD $0.81) for a cold beer and soda. A soda and bottle of water at Anna Miller’s set us back Yen $1,210 (USD $10.52). Everything in Sabang Beach is geared toward English speaking visitors; in Tokyo, outside our international hotel and various billboard slogans, there is little evidence of English. In fact, if Japan hadn't adopted a Romanized alphabet, we would probably still be on our first subway ride.

Today, our second journey on the Tokyo noodle, to the Imperial Palace, was much smoother (it's amazing how much easier things can be when you ask for directions!) Unfortunately the palace itself, hidden behind high stone walls, is open only one or two days each year, so Scott and I settled for a stroll through the Imperial Gardens despite the most oppressive heat and humidity I’ve ever experienced. We found it curious that we had difficulty finding a trash can anywhere on the garden grounds or nearby public areas. Perhaps in Japan, where eating in public has been traditionally frowned upon, trash cans aren’t necessary.

August 16, 2007
Grand New Prince Takanawa Hotel
Tokyo, Japan

We discovered the Museum of Science Technology in the northern grounds of the palace gardens yesterday afternoon. Ever the inquiring mind, Scott quickly became engrossed in the five floors of hands on science displays. One of the more popular attractions was an exhibition on earthquake construction technology. We sat in a machine that simulated a large quake, first in an older building, then in a modern quake-resistant one. Early this morning, Scott and I got a non-simulated demonstration of the latter. I was awaken at 4:00 AM by the gentle rolling of my bed and was immediately aware of a quake. Not wanting Scott to miss the experience, I quietly called across to him. Already awake, he asked what was happening; he had never been in a trembler before. The 5.5 quake lasted ten or 15 seconds and we were both well awake when it was done. Scott talked excitedly in the aftermath and it was quite some time before he calmed down.

After visiting the museum, Scott and I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s part of the Tokyo Dome City, home to the Yamuri Giants baseball club and an amusement park. We arrived 45 minutes before closing, but Scott and I decided to see what we could. Last summer we spent a day at United States’ Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but it only took us only 30 minutes to take in the entire Japanese version. There far fewer exhibits and very little of the information is in English. The only name I recognized in the actual hall of fame was Sadaharu Oh. Scott and I debated about who was the real homerun king – Barry Bonds (758 and counting) or Oh (800+) and we agreed on our home team player.

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Baseball Hall of Fame

It took a couple days in Tokyo, but we finally found souvenir sellers this morning. The road leading to the Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa ward is lined with vendors hawking souvenir swords, fans, and refrigerator magnets. We also saw the highest concentration of American and European tourists here and even met a California family at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just outside the temple, Scott learned future by shaking a can containing dozens of fortune sticks, each carved with Japanese script, until one finally popped out the small hole on top. He matched the stick’s carvings to the rows upon rows of small drawers and found the one matching his stick; inside, a sheet of paper foretold his fortune. The Senso-ji temple was built to honor a small stone statue accidentally fished out of a local river hundreds of years ago. Inside the noisy shrine, where tourists mingled with worshippers, I noticed a large mat to the side of the shrine screened off from the rest of the temple. I led Scott to the mat where we removed our shoes and quietly knelt for several minutes. Rather than remain with the crowd, I showed Scott we could go beyond merely looking and experience sights.

Early on Scott expressed an interest in experiencing a traditional kabuki theatre during our visit to Japan. We learned that plays last several hours and that it’s not impolite to bring a picnic lunch or even doze off during one of the many acts. Fortunately, we discovered that balcony tickets could be purchased for individual acts and the must-see theatre was the famed Kabuki-ka. A large crowd was already waiting when we arrived in the afternoon. Just ahead in the line an official looking man stood with a sign in his hand repeatedly made an announcement. Unsure what was going on, we agreed to just go with the flow. After a few minutes, the man noticed us and repeated his announcement. When we gestured that we didn’t understand, he became visibly distraught. He gestured for us to wait where we were and rushed off. A few minutes later he returned with an English sign indicating we were too far back in line to be admitted to the next show and would have to wait for the following act. I was amazed how upset the usher was that we didn’t initially understand him and that he felt compelled to immediately bridge the language gap. I don’t imagine that would happen if the roles were reversed outside a Broadway Theater.

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Kabuki-ka Theater

The heat and humidity were once again relentless and I was sure Scott wouldn’t want to wait over an hour for a dramatization performed in Japanese. I learned how strong his interest in theater was, though, when his determination didn’t waver. Luckily, just as they were closing the door just ahead of us, we were offered standing room only tickets. It wasn’t difficult to choose between standing in line in the heat for 75 minutes or standing inside the air-conditioned theater for 75 minutes. We paid our admission and climbed three flights of stairs to the gallery. Scott, aided by an English audio commentary recording, enjoyed the story of a lazy man befriended by a ghost. I wasn’t able to follow the story closely, but he filled me occasionally and I enjoyed the kabuki experience, too.

After the show Scott and I rode the subway to the Shibuya ward, where endless neon lights tower over the narrow streets lined with restaurants and arcades. This is where Gen X-ers gather in trendy, sometimes outrages, outfits and hairdos to hangout and socialize. Scott enjoyed the endless video games, particularly in the arcade with five narrow walk up floors and a stuffy smoky basement. I was amused by the middle aged man dressed in a business suit playing Drum Maniac over and over with as much gusto as Wang Chung. Scott would have been content to explore Sega World and the many other arcades all night, but we only had one morning left to visit the sunrise fish market, so we made it an early night.


August 18, 2007
Elk Grove, California

As a child, December 26 was the most depressing day of the year. With the excitement of the holidays past, the weeks of anticipation gone, the day after Christmas was always a let-down. Fortunately as I’ve grown older, that disappointment has been tempered with an appreciation for getting back to a normal routine. Today feels like December 26, with a January 1 jet-lag hang over. It’s sad our journey is over, but it is good to be home.

It took about seven days in Asia before I finally got over jet-lag and on each of our last evenings in Tokyo we determined to wake before dawn the following day to visit the famed Tsujiki Wholesale Fish Market where over $15 million worth of fresh fish are sold each day before sunrise. Each morning, though, it was easier to sleep past day break and put it off one more day. Finally, on our last day, Scott and I got up before sunrise (no earthquake alarm), made two subway transfers, and reached the market before most of the city was awake. Unfortunately, the market was still asleep, too. It was one of those rare days the market was closed!

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Shinjuku Ward

As Scott and I returned to our hotel and prepared for our return home, I thought about the many sides of Tokyo. We visited ancient temples attended by simply dressed monks, high tech business centers filled with men in suits, and neon arcades filled with Gen-Xers dressed in the latest fashions. In one subway ride we saw a skimpy clad teen girl with bleached blonde hair, children in school uniforms, and a woman wearing a traditional kimono. Not one of them, though, showed any signs of the heat that left my shirt perpetually soaking wet!

We left Asia in the afternoon, flying east away from the setting sun only to find it rising over our west coast. Somewhere over the north Pacific, Scott and I found that lost day and arrived in San Francisco seven hours before we left Tokyo. Perhaps our Boeing 747 was outfitted with a flux capacitor. Riding BART to our parked car, Scott and I shared a train with Americans of Asian, African, European, and Central American descent –a true melting pot. Whether we were walking the streets of Manila, wandering the shops of Puerto Galera, playing video games in Shinjuku, or riding the Tokyo subways, people stared at us every where we went. It felt good to be a local again.

We've had the great fortune of seeing another part of the world. The experiences-watching huge cuttlefish scurry by, motor biking to Tamaraw Falls, mastering Tokyo's subway, fortune reading at the Senso-ji temple, are far more memorable for having shared them with Scott. I brought home no T-shirts or key chains, no trinkets to put on a shelf. Aside from a few hundred pictures, the only souvenirs I have from our journey to the East are what I learned about the world, about my son, about myself.

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Posted by SChandler 16:56 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

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