Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pulling it all Together

I have no idea if anyone is reading this anymore, yet somehow it didn't seem right to just end things with the real Guatemala. I guess I've come to think of this as my own little first attempt at some kind of running story, and what story would be complete without an ending?

I've been home for a week today. Wow. It seems like a million years ago that I was riding dangerous boats and sleeping in small rooms with scratchy blankets. The end of my trip was so perfect in so many ways. I had a crazy mixup with my ticket, with the airline basically "cancelling" my ticket because my credit card address didn't match what was on file. In the midst of being so happy to come home I got an email from them informing me I no longer had a reservation. I almost had a panic attack at the computer, with thoughts of being stuck in Guatemala forever racing through my head. I spent an hour (yes, an hour!) on hold with the airlines, and after finally getting a live person on the line, all of a sudden had changed my ticket again, and was leaving in two days! Gosh, it felt good though. Sure, it would be fun to see the Guatemalan coast, and the black sand beaches, but the idea of another five hour journey on the bus, and hauling my pack and my crazy hammocks around, was just too much. I think you reach a certain point where, when you're done, you're done. It's just time. It's like you can handle any crazy travel delay, shrug your shoulders about missing a bus, laugh about any manner of mishaps, and then when you switch your mind over to going home, it's all of a sudden hard to think about dealing with one more thing....

So, with two more days to go, I headed back to Antigua with Mark and Inga, to meet up with the two men I was staying with, Arie and Gary. Mark and Inga were supposed to head to the beach, but decided to stay. We were really lucky to be there for the Semana Santa celebration, which is the second biggest celebration in the whole world. Literally half of the people in Guatemala come to this area for it. The whole town, already colorful, is draped in purple ribbons, and different areas of town are turned into little miniature street fairs. There are rows and rows of vendors selling the most artificial looking, flourescent candy, that somehow manages to look beautiful and toxic at the same time. The churches are packed to capacity with people and musicians. The chicken buses are out in droves, transporting people back and forth across the country. But by far the most striking part of the whole thing is the art that people make on the cobblestone streets throughout the town. All of the markets are selling sawdust that has been dyed in a million different colors, and people walk through the streets with bags of it. In the middle of the street, they make these huge works of art, using all of these brightly colored hues, as well as flowers, palm fronds, branches, glitter, and anything else that stands out to the artist's eye. The finished product looks almost like an enormous oriental rug, Guatemalan style, and is the product of hours and hours of labor. Each night, there is a procession of a church from around the local areas, or from Antigua. Each church community spends all year working on these huge dioramas of some kind of scene from the Bible. The night we were there, we stood on the sidelines, listening to the drumbeat that you could hear from blocks away, as people slowly started to file past. First came the hooded figures swinging cans full of frankincense; burning and filling the streets and our lungs with that musky smell I'm obsessed with. By the time the main part of the procession got to us, the drum beats were so loud that they reverberated in my chest with the incense, making me feel like I was being taken over by this strange, solemn parade. The diorama the church had put together was like the biggest coffin you've ever seen, with a scene of the resurrection on top, and literally took 50 people to carry it, everyone swaying hypnotically side to side under their heavy burden. As they move through the town, they kick over the sawdust creations, which have been built especially for this purpose. I love all the care and work that has been put into these, all with the idea that they're made to be destroyend hours later. It was really special to be part of a celebration that felt so uniquely Guatemalan, and was so interesting and beautiful. I think seeing how people choose to celebrate parts of their lives is almost the best way to see what their values and traditions are. It all made sense there with the bright colors, the solemn yet joyful festivities, the sense of community and family. Maybe *that* was the real Guatemala...

That night, Arie and Gary, who were living in an apartment in Antigua for the week, made us the most delicious dinner, and the five of us sat around while Mark, Inga and I went crazy for this raw salad full of vegetables, and some whisky and wine....I was so excited to go home that spending my last night having a home cooked meal felt like the perfect precursor to what I was going home to. Just being in someone's house for the night made me realize how much time, traveling, you spend in public spaces. At home, I'm so used to having my sanctuary, full of my things, my dog, my style, my cooking...while part of the beauty of traveling is leaving all of that behind for a while, and challenging yourself to be without the identity that becomes part of who you think of yourself as, it is also exhausting to never be HOME, and in the comfort and security of what you have created. It made me realize that on my next trip, I want to stay someplace for a while, and call somewhere home, and shop at the markets and cook and see what it's like to live somewhere else, rather than just be passing through as a tourist.

The next day, my last day, I went with Arie and Gary to this ridiculously fancy restaurant, which was an old hacienda that had been turned into a restaurant and hotel. Beautiful doesn't really begin to describe it, as it was laden with gorgeous nooks, crannies, beautiful gardens and patios tucked in unlikely places, and absolutely enormous hammocks for two everywhere, almost begging you to lay down and take a nap. We ate a gourmet lunch and talked of their trip and mine, and what we had gotten from our respective journeys. These two had been together for about three years, and for Gary, it was the first boyfriend he had had. He was almost sixty, and had spent his whole life doing things that were really not him. He married his high school sweetheart and was together with her for 35 (!) years in a loveless marriage, working hard, providing, doing all of the things he was supposed to do. And was completely not happy. And, to be fair to his wife, she wasn't happy either, with a husband that really, in his heart, didn't want to be with her. He and his wife had just separated when he met Arie, and for the first time was able to admit who he wanted to be. This trip, at sixty, is the first time he'd been out of the country, the first time he'd taken a month off, the first time he'd stepped out of this life of duty that had been *his* identity. It was amazing to see how alive he was, how thriving, how much the experience of being out and about, seeing a new culture and letting go had changed him. It was so inspirational to me, and I just loved meeting these two funny, quirky men who were so different and yet so right for each other...

And now I'm home. As I said, it seems like it's been a million years since I've been in Guatemala, and that so much has happened since I've gotten back. In some ways it feels like I never left Portland, yet the richness and the challenges of my trip are in me, informing the decisions I want to make now that I'm back. All of these feeling while gone, of wanting to create something here, are very present for me, as I look at pulling together all these pieces into what I want my life to be. After I got back from Thailand, I wanted to travel so much that it felt difficult to be present here, with my heart and mind always racing away to foreign lands, while my physical body was planted here. It feels *awesome* to get home, and to know that this is where I want to be. I've come to realize, on my trip, the true value of this community of people I have created around me, and am so blessed to come home to so many people who have been excited and eager to see me, and supportive of what I have done and where I am going. I've come to realize how much it means to me, at my core, to also be an anchor and an inspiration for others, and what I want to give of myself. I know how much I want adventure and excitment to be part of my life, yet how much I value the comfort and simplicity that are the foundation of my life. I love knowing that I don't have to run off to the corners of the globe to have any and all of these things.

And, I love knowing that my next adventure will soon begin to take shape in my head, and I can do it all over again....

It's been awesome writing this blog, actually one of my favorite parts of my trip. I haven't written in so long, and it's been great to dust off those muscles and to find that they're actually suprisingly supple. I've found that just thinking about recording my memories gave my days a whole different flavor, as my brain was always watching, and remembering, and engaging, rather than just being a passive observer. I hope people enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing....


Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Real Guatemala

We have a running joke right now, inspired by an entry in the Lonely Planet that talks about finding the real Guatemala. They´re discussing what they call the long and boring discussions of earnest travelers as they search for the essence of this country, and the experience of really being here, with the people. We usually talk joke about how we´ve found the real Guatemala as we sit at yet another tropical themed restaurant, surrounded solely by other American and European travelers, looking at yet another menu offering up hamburgers, spaghetti and English breakfasts. Well, this is it, we´ve finally found it! Not that these places aren´t lovely but...

It´s an interesting paradox to be in a country that has had a violent history and has only recently made it onto traveler´s maps as a safe and appealing country to visit. Indeed, it seems the fact that people still consider it an ¨undiscovered country¨has made it wildly popular.

Before coming here, many of my friends and family expressed concern over traveling here, and I had my own ideas about what the country would be like. Reading the Lonely Planet, you basically get the idea that if you venture off the beaten path, you run a high risk of being robbed or mutilated, although in the next breath there is talk of the magic of the country and the friendliness of the people. With all of this in your head, everybody, and I do mean everybody, sticks to the beaten path. The interesting thing is that this path is filled with Italian restaurants, American movies, handicraft shops and hastily constructed guest houses. Get off the path and you´ll find merely a whisper of a dirt road. As we follow this tourist trail, there is lots of beauty, especially in the natural form, and in the smiles and faces of the people here. But there is also the sense that this country has chosen to, or has had to, sacrifice much of their own culture to satisfy the desires of the travelers and tourists that have made Guatemala their next destination. It seems difficult, sometimes, to get a sense of what a country is about, when in order to ¨develop¨and be prosperous, it´s forced to cater to what people from other countries, with money, want. In Mexico, or in Thailand, it seems that the country has been able to hold on to their traditions, and what goes along with their culture, such as the aesthetics, the cuisine, and a certain pride in what makes their country special. The relative safety there also makes you feel that you can wander around and see more of the country. I feel a certain pessimistic irony when I look around at these twenty year old kids who fill the ¨chill spaces¨created by people here, draped in their fresh-from-the-market head to toe Guatemalan outfits. It´s interesting to see white tourists dressed in clothes that are part of the traditional way of life here. I can`t help but feel that there is something just....wrong about it.

Yesterday we went to this town called Santiago to see this saint that gets moved around every couple of years to a hidden location (hidden enough to be listed in the Lonely Planet). I was, honestly, slightly hungover, and feeling a little bit more sensitive than usual, and was a bit overwhelmed by some of the sights that are just part of being here, like skinny, mangy dogs everywhere, half finished or falling down construction, two year olds asking for ¨un quetzal,¨ women selling their beautiful handicrafts for the price of a cup of coffee, old men spending their afternoon following us for the chance we might take their taxi for a few dollars...this is all not mentioning the great things about being here, but damn, if you ever doubt you´re lucky to have been born in the U.S., or Canada, etc., a couple of hours wandering around certain towns will remind you in a hurry.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Following your heart in the Fire

A couple of mornings ago we were waiting for a bus to Lago Atitlan. Actually, I was the only one waiting so far, as, for some reason, I am the most punctual person ever right now, and am also up by six every single morning. What? Anyways, my friends were close behind me, but it was just me, early in the morning. This man came and sat down beside me, and, completely out of the blue, proceeded to tell me this story:

"There once was a trapeze artist who was the greatest trapeze artist around. He dazzled everyone who saw him. As he started to get older, he knew his days weren't long to keep performing. He began to train his son to take his place, and they spent every day practicing. The boy soon surpassed his father in skill, and one day, they knew the time had come for the boy to take the place of his father. On his first night, the crowd was full of people who had all come to see the son of the great trapeze artist. As he stood on the platform, the trapeze swung to the boy, and he watched it go by, and did not jump for it. The crowd gasped, but the boy could not do it. Later that night, the ringmaster told the boy that if he could not perform, he would have to fire him, as much as he didn't want to. The boy went to his father, ashamed of his performance, and asked him what he should do. "I'm so afraid" he said. The father gently held the boy and said "I will give you some advice. It is simple, but if you follow it, you will not go wrong. All you must do in life is leap with your heart, and your body will follow."

Then this man grabbed my hand, looked at my palm, and told me I will have two children. And then he got up and walked away without saying anything else. I hadn't even had any coffee yet, and didn't know what to make of it.

This last week has been really great for me, maybe the best of my trip. We got to Antigua last...oh, I don't know, Sunday maybe. It's a really beautiful old colonial town that used to be the capital of Guatemala, but was unfortunately built on not the most stable real estate, and has been rocked by multiple earthquakes over the years. While it has a certain polish to it, the earthquakes have lent it a slightly ruinous look too. There's these beautiful old stone churches that are starting to crumble but still have a certain grandeur, and when you go inside, big portions of the ceiling are missing, or walls have melted into the floor over time. The city is surrounded by three volcanoes that tower above it, but you can't see them all the time. So all of a sudden you turn a corner, and there are the most picturesque scenes. Bright stucco houses in a row, all different colors, framed by a cobblestone street, a huge volcano and the bluest sky you can imagine. I have a couple of amazing pictures from one day when the sky and the light were absolutely incredible, and we walked around while I took pictures of practically anything that had some color in it.

A couple of days ago we climbed the Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano about an hour outside of the city. The hike was really hard, almost but not quite straight up for about two hours, and it was odd because as we were climbing it, we kept wondering where this volcano actually was. The top of the mountain was....incredible. We could see the three different volcanoes that surrounded Antigua in the distance, all wreathed with clouds, and again with that insanely blue sky. The actual volcano we were climbing kind of...started? at the top of this mountain. All around us everything was green and lush with trees and flowers, and then there was the cone of this volcano which kind of looked like Mordor. It was black and rocky and there was for sure nothing alive on it. Except for the 100 or so people scrambling all over the rocks. We made our way down the steep path, and when you climb out onto the rocks, you can immediately tell that this is technically not a good idea. The rocks are dark, crumbly and hollow, and crunch underneath your feet, and even a large rock seems to just suddenly start to disintegrate underneath you. The further we went, the rocks got hotter and hotter. I mean really hot, and soon it was like we were walking on a barbecue. As we moved along, we began to see, through the rocks, maybe a few feet beneath us, lava flowing and glowing a burning red and orange. It started to smell like roasting marshmallows but was really just the smell of cheap shoes melting on the rocks. The hard (and a bit terrifying) part on the rocks was that you couldn't touch anything, so every time a rock would crumble, my instinct would be to reach out and steady myself, yet you really can't, as you'll burn yourself on the crazy barbecue coals. Finally you reach, basically, a flowing river of lava, with chunks of rock floating through it, and then being pulled down into it's depths. It being Guatemala, you are allowed to get as close as you want to it and could probably jump in if you so desired. After seeing it for a couple of moments, I had to get the hell off the rocks, as I still couldn't shake the feeling that this was, at the heart of things, a stupid place to be. I fully expect, sometime down the road, to hear about this volcano stirring and a significant amount of tourists dying. It kind of feels like tempting the volcano gods just a bit to be climbing around on this thing. However, it certainly was interesting to see, and at the top everyone sat around and compared the state of our shoes. People who were wearing old or inexpensive shoes had lost their entire soles, and other people's seams had melted, or they'd lost shoelaces...it was kind of crazy.

The day before yesterday we came to Lago Atitlan, a couple hours northwest of Antigua. It's a huge lake, ringed by (again) multiple volcanoes, with quite a few small towns nestled on it's banks. We stayed, the first night, at a town called Panajachel, a pretty touristy but charming place, and kind of the jumping off point for planning your stay at the lake. Yesterday we went to this huge market called Chichicastenango. After all this time of not shopping, I gave in yesterday to that part of me that *loves* beautiful things. And wow was there a lot of beautiful things. Everything here is so bright that is was almost overwhelming to be surrounded on all sides by the fabrics, the masks, the bedspreads, the carvings, the clothing, all in various shades of technicolor. We went to this gorgeous church right in the middle of the market, surrounded by rounded stone steps, and filled with women in traditional dress selling food, flowers, candles and incense to take inside the church for the various rituals that people were performing. The church was dark and lit only by candles, and there was delicious incense burning in canisters that I could feel in every part of my chest. There was one man who knelt on the stone floor with flower petals and candles around him, and in this particularly touching way, carried on a casual but earnest looking conversation with his God, nodding and gesturing and his voice rising and falling with emotion...and love.

So speaking of following your heart. Earlier this week, my encounter with the man on the bench was perfect. While the story he told me is simple, and probably nothing I haven't thought of before, it was just at the right time. Following my heart has been on my mind a lot this last week. I'd been trying to decide what to do next, where I wanted to go, on and on. And what I want to do; what I'm ready to do, is come home. I'd been thinking about it for a couple of days already. I've been with these really great people since Semuc Champuey, these two couples. Avi and Vicki, from Israel, and Mark and Inga, who live in London. Being surrounded by a group of people who I really connect with, laugh with, care about and have gotten to know has been exactly what I needed here. I have been having the best time with them, and one of the great things is that it has allowed me to assess what I really want from a clear headspace, and to look into my heart and ask myself what I'm craving right now, not just in the moment but in my life. Being with people I really like a lot has made me realize I'm ready to come home and be with people I love. Sooo, that's what I'm doing. First, I am going to stay in Antigua for Semana Santa, on the 21st, with these two great guys I met. It's the second largest celebration in the world, and I'm lucky I get to be there for it. And then...Portland.

Details to follow...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Triathlon of...Something

Another week since I've written-another month's worth of activities, thoughts and emotions all compressed into one short period. We arrived last night in Antigua, after (another) really long bus ride from central Guatemala. The last three days have been spent at an area called Lanquin, which is definitely the most beautiful place I have been so far.

After leaving Belize, I traveled with a couple of people to Flores, which is the base for visiting Tikal, considered to be some of the best Mayan ruins you can see. Flores itself is set on quite a beautiful lake, and the town is pretty, with whitewashed buildings, red roofs, lots of lush greenery and the blue of the water, which also lends a nice breeze to the town. I went to Tikal for a day, and it was definitely my favorite of the ruins I have visited, which is not saying that much because I have concluded, sadly, that, as I mentioned before, ruins don't do much for me. These ones are set pretty deep in the rainforest, which was my favorite part. I saw a couple of adorable monkeys swinging around the trees, and some really cool birds, who build these crazy nests that hang from branches like straw handbags, looking like they are literally held up by a thread, and that one too many chicks would send them crashing down the 100 feet to the ground below. It is really peaceful here, with all of the sounds of the jungle, and you stroll for about 30 minutes or so between each temple or building, along shady, secluded paths that I enjoy while also bringing Rachael's warnings to my ears.

After getting my fill of Tikal and Flores, I left on an early shuttle to Lanquin, a teensy town in the middle of nowhere in the central highlands of Guatemala. On the looong van ride there, I met this really awesome group of people that I am still with. Our ride was really fun, sharing stories from travels and laughing, and it has been great to make some good friends. It's interesting meeting people on this trip: in Asia, everyone was basically heading the same general direction, for better of for worse, and chances were quite high when you met someone you liked that they would be going to the same place you were. Here, the area is so large, and there are so many places to go, routes to take, etc. that it feels almost like some kind of planetary alignment has to happen for factors to be right to continue on with someone. Lots of great people to talk to, but more on a night by night basis. Hence, my constant dating. In fact, (side thought), were I to come back home and start dating people, I would really be practiced at it by now. The scenery on the way was absolutely gorgeous, with the last two hours being twisty turny roads that made both your stomach and your jaw drop. With every bend, we'd be looking out at the greenest...hills? mountains?...one after another, so steep and tall, running into each other far into the horizon, and then topped with white misty clouds, and dotted with small houses, churches, and villages nestled way down deep in the dramatic valleys. We finally arrived at our "town," which was really just a collection of houses and farms perched on a hill. Everything is perched on a hill here, as there's barely a flat piece of land anywhere. The locals have some seriously strong calves. The place we stayed at, El Retiro, is full of people who come here for a couple of days and don't leave, and it is easy to see why. The guesthouse is a series of small, charming, thatched roof palapas, and one big main "lodge" that overlooks a beautiful river, with a steep hill on the other side laden with palms and grasses. The lodge has lots of hammocks, a loft upstairs with pillows and lamps, and long tables where everyone eats family style. Dinner is served by candlight at seven, and everyone sits down to great music and delicious, healthy, mostly vegetarian yumminess. It's quite the treat. One day we went on this tour, which was a serious triathlon of fun. The first part leg was caving, and we were each handed a candle, and headed into my second river cave. The guide went ahead of us, and at each turn, he'd light a small candle on the wall, so that the whole cave glowed, rather than being harshly illuminated by headlamps and such. I kept wishing I could take a picture of this line of 15 people with candles in their hands, wading through the water while a couple of bats swooped from the ceiling. The actual caving was, like my other tour, pretty rigourous. We had to swim for quite a while, all in a row, and then climb some seriously sketchy ladders propped in slippery waterfalls, and over and through lots of rock formations. At the end, in the final dangerous act, we took a "shortcut" out of the caves, through this hole in the floor of a cavern, again with a small waterfall rushing through it, where you sat on the edge, looked down into complete blackness, and then just kind of...jumped, falling through the air about ten feet into a pool of deep water, and then swimmng to the edge...I have to admit I was slightly terrified, but it was actually really fun. You can almost tell how developed a country is but exactly how dangerous the activities are that they'll let you participate in. I mean, can you imagine doing that in the U.S.?.....the second leg involved sitting in the sun, relaxing and floating down the river on an innertube. Seriously one of my favorite ways to spend a sunny day. And finally, we went to Semuc Champuey, a series of limestone pools, again that gorgeous aquamarine color, so clear and warm, with small waterfalls cascading into each other. We finally took a collectivo back to our little retreat, super tired and happy from such a fun day...

We spent a couple of days at Lanquin, and just got to Antigua. It's really pretty here, another beautiful colonial town, and originally where I was going to take some more Spanish and salsa dancing classes. But...now I don't know what I'm doing. I had some pretty big realizations during abovementioned emotional breakdown in Tikal, namely around what I think about traveling alone, and, just as much, the nature, for me, of independence itself.

It has been an interesting, eye opening, and incredible experience to travel by myself for these last six weeks. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I'm really happy to have experienced it. Not just happy, but blessed to see what spending this time relying on myself is like. At the same time, my gosh has it been an emotional rollercoaster. Always, at home and here, I push myself so hard to be so strong, and I take so much pride in being able to always take care of myself. I've thought, for so long, that taking care of yourself means being able to do it all alone, and not needing others to make your life work. Almost like friendships and relationships are the icing on the cake, but the real substance needs to be just mine. I see that I've done this so much throughout my life. When I have a problem I need to figure out, I think I need to, by myself, turn it over and over in my mind until I find a solution, which I can then share with those in my life, but not until I know what's going on. I think sometimes I don't give the people I love in my life the opportunity to share their wisdom with me, thinking I need to do it myself. Honestly, in Tikal, I realized the foolishness of this thinking, and that that is not where I am in my life anymore, nor where I want to be. I was thinking that this trip by myself would be the ultimate test of my strength of character as an independent person. What I got instead is that my experiences, my life, my good times and bad are better and more fulfilling to me when shared with the people in my life. I really understood how much I want to create memories with the people that make my life what it is, rather than running around seeing more pretty things (no matter how pretty they might be). It was a great realization to have out of a really hard day, and it gave me a lot of perspective on what I have learned on this trip, and what I will take away from it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More Sacrifices

I am bone tired right now, perched on a stool in my guest house, about to go to bed. Today I went on this pretty amazing tour of this cave in western Belize, in Cayo, called Actun Tunichil Muknal. The same family that I talked to on my way here told me about it, and I was intrigued from the start. It's outside of this town called San Ignacio, a quite uncharming town that makes me think I live in the most beautiful city in the whole world. I got here the day before yesterday, after a water taxi from Caye Caulker, and then a crazy bus ride from Belize City here. All of the public buses here, like Guatemala, are old American schoolbuses. It's kind of fun to see where they're from, and it brings back a serious rush of grade school memories (DON'T stand in front of the yellow line). On the way here, our bus, packed to the gills, broke down. Various people got off, milling around, pretending like they might fix it, and then they gave up, and we all piled off and stood by the side of the road, waiting for the next bus to come. When it did, everyone from my bus piled on to yet another bus filled to bursting, and we all set off. I was basically sitting on the dashboard in the front windshield with one leg braced against the railing. Every time someone would get off, I'd practically have to swing my leg over their head to let them by. Good thing it was the one day I wasn't wearing a dress. I must admit it was pretty fun, while slightly sketchy.
I'd heard this town was quite charming, which is a gross overexageration, but the scenery surrounding it is quite beautiful, with lush expanses of tall grass, palm trees, and green, green, green. This morning we all piled into a van, and drove for about an hour to reach the start to the trail. The walk in is another hour or so, through green, green, green jungle, and on the way you cross three rivers that you wade through, at about knee height. Our guide strode across them in about two seconds while the rest of us slipped and slid over the rocks, in a not so graceful way. We reached our little stopping point outside of the cave, where we all got our little helmets and lights, and then headed in. I had thought I had a reasonably good idea of what the cave would be like, but, really, I didn't, nor did anyone else who I was with. The entrance to the cave is gorgeous, as it's basically a blue, clear tropical river gushing out the side of a rock face, with jungle vines hanging down in front of it in a very romantic manner. You climb down the rocks and then swim in to the cave. From the second you get in, you can hear a distant waterfall, and some bats from further in the cave. Next we proceeded to spend the next hour or so making our way far into the cave, which is just over 3 miles long. The whole distance we traveled, you alternate between water that is around waist high to areas where you have to swim across, and then climb up rocks before you duck down and squeeze yourself between small spaces, that would then open up to huge chambers...it was very dramatic. And really frickin' cool. You can't help but feel slightly Indiana Jones, or something along those lines, pulling yourself up and around.
Our group was a very interesting mix of people. There were four younger people (all married) who are Jehovah's witnesses, and are here in Belize on a mission for a year. There was a very outdoorsy couple from Boston on their National Geographic honeymoon, there was me and then...there was Bill. Ah, Bill. You can't help, when on a trip as an American, but to come face to face with the American question. Especially when you're in Belize, where every other person is an American tourist. It brings up some interesting stuff. I actually have to say that some perspective makes me think about a lot of things about our country that really are amazing, and how lucky I am to live there in many, many ways. In my optimistic way, I really do think that most people wish general goodwill towards others, and do their own version of their best to be good people. Naive? Whatever. So when people talk about Americans in, um, not the most favorable light, my immediate instinct is to jump to our defense, and enumerate many ways in which this is a ridiculous oversimplification, not true, etc. But, being here, I have to admit I look around and, damn, I see where people get these ideas from. I find myself talking about American tourists in the third person, as though I'm not one. And I realize that I'm truly, in my mind, disassociating myself from this whole group of people. Ah, like Bill. Bill is from St. Louis, but spends his winters here in Belize. He is retired, and maybe in his late 50´s or so. This tour seriously kicked his ass today, which I get (it was hard!). I went back and forth, all day, between being kind of proud of him and a little bit concerned, while he clambered awkwardly over rocks, dog paddled through pools and basically came close to killing himself multiple times. He also somehow managed to lose both his watch and all his money. Just as I would put out a hand to steady him, he'd say something about all of us women having a wet t-shirt contest in the cave, or pretend to stomp on some pottery, and I would shudder with the utter jackass behavior. Gosh, it's easy (and slightly tragic) to see where people get these ideas about us...
Anyways, finally we reached a place where we crawled from the river, climbed a ledge, and the cavern opened up into a series of huge rooms, where the Mayan people used to come and, what else?, sacrifice people and animals. I found, on the way there, that I was very much able to imagine people from 1000 years or so ago, carrying their torches as they swam through these slightly spooky caves, and crawling up these same ledges....One of the really interesting things about this specific tour is that it was only "discovered" (of course locals have always known about it) about twenty years ago, and nothing has actually been moved. So while you're walking, our guide kept saying "Watch out for the pottery beneath your feet" and you'd look down to see, oh, a bloodletting bowl two inches from your right foot. Crazy. Apparently, this cave was actively in use during a time when things weren't going so well ecologically. Droughts were dragging on to the tiresome tune of fifty years or so, and people were getting desperate. Apparently the king donating blood from his penis or tongue wasn't working, so they had to step things up. There are the bones of different animals, including jaguars, and, then, the skulls and remains of humans as well. The highlight (if you can really call it that) is a perfectly preserved human skeleton that they call the Crystal Maiden. From what they can tell, she was about 13 or so, and they think she must have been royalty. Also from what they can tell, it seems that as she was sacrificed, they chopped her hands off, and then, possibly by an axe chop, her spine was broken to kill her. No matter how it happened, the most striking thing to me is that she clearly died screaming. Her mouth is wide open, and I certainly don't blame her. So brutal! I think it's so interesting that after so long, everything else seems like speculation about what happened, except for her look when she died...somehow that endures throughout all of these years.
After a long hike back out the cave and through the jungle and a good meal of some awesome ginger rum shrimp, I am SO ready for bed and a bus to Guatemala tomorrow. I *seriously* have to switch my mind back over to (attempting) to speak some Spanish, after my ten day English vacation.
Buenes Noches and Besos,

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Calm Underwater and Storms Above

I wrote this yesterday, after my second day of my diving class. I spent the night almost sleepless yesterday, as every time I would close my eyes, the whole experience would return to me. It's hard for me to post entries about experiences that are less than awesome for me, yet somehow I want this blog to be about sharing not only my great times but lessons that may be hard but valuable. I have some idea of who is reading these, but not completely, and you never know when or how a story of your own will affect someone else, so here it is:

As I'm sitting here writing I can still feel my body rocking up and down. I just took some aspirin but think what I've got requires something a little stronger than that. Today was day three of my diving class that I have been taking, although the first day doesn't really count, as it's all videos. Yesterday was the first day of being underwater, breathing. We took a boat about fifteen minutes away from the island, and then jumped in the shallow water (about 6-7 feet) to do our skills sessions. The first part was just treading water for ten minutes, and while we did that a huge stingray passed beneath our feet, and a large barracuda watched us from under the boat. I was so scared I was going to kick the stingray and he was going to turn and, oh you know, pierce my heart or something. Even though I know they're generally gentle, being so far out from land awakens this sleeping fear inside of me. After treading water, we went down underwater for the first time. Our skills sessions were not scary, but slightly strenuous, as they involved one task after another, some of which were commonplace things that could happen underwater, some for emergency situations. When we came up, I was not super into this whole scuba thing so far. While I did just fine, I was having trouble seeing the real lure of the whole activity. Then we went for a dive to just breathe and get used to being underwater, and to have some frickin' fun.

Wow. We started out around ten feet, and then by the time we came up, we were thirty feet down. Which isn't much at all for diving, but certainly further under the water than I ever thought I might be. It was incredible. Once we got moving, I couldn't believe how freeing and incredibly relaxing it was. My fear of being down there, and of sharks and such, disappeared once I got to be part of the environment, rather than splashing around above. It was so peaceful, with brightly colored fish drifting past, and coming up so close to check us out. The coral was gorgeous, with these big fan shaped pieces blowing back and forth like in a breeze, and interesting formations everywhere. Every time I would turn my head, I would see some new piece of life that I had never seen before. But even better than the marine life was the feeling it gave me to be floating along weightless. It felt so graceful and effortless to kick my fins and move through the water silently. All there was to hear was the sound of my bubbles from my mask as I exhaled. Even the fact that your buoyancy is controlled by your breath lent itself to just staying slow and calm, and enjoying the world as it went by. I would exhale and slowly drift towards the bottom, where my belly might almost touch before I used just my fingertips to push myself away again. I'd inhale deeply and feel myself float lightly up. It was really magical, and it seemed amazing that after just hours in the water I felt so comfortable being down there. I left my class yesterday feeling on top of the world, and so proud of myself for doing MUCH better than I thought I was going to.

And then fast forward to today. Last night, there was the craziest wind storm here. I haven't been in wind like it since my first year of college, when we stood at the top of the steps, leaned in and were held up by the force of the gusts blowing our jackets and hair back. Last night was like that here, and was so awesome. It was fun, and crazy, to be blown all over the place by this warm tropical wind. I had dinner with the girls in my diving class, and we discussed whether class would be canceled today, since the weather didn't seem like it had any intention of letting up. But the wind died down a bit, and when we got to class today, everything was still happening. On the way out to our dive site, our boat was bouncing everywhere over these huge 5 or 6 foot waves, and I started to feel really nervous about going in the water. I kept trying to talk myself out of these feelings, but it wasn't really working out that well. We talked about our plan for getting in the water, and I felt pretty confident that I understood how this was all supposed to go down. We entered backwards into the water, and swam towards the front of the boat, and the anchor line that had been dropped. We were supposed to go down to the bottom, which was about twenty feet when we got there. The day before had been beautiful and still, and when we deflated our vests, we all just kind of sank straight down. Having had that be my only experience, I didn't quite take into account what this crazy day on the sea was going to be like. As I let go of the rope and deflated my vest, rather than sinking, I immediately started heading right underneath the boat, and was barely a foot under the water, plenty high enough to watch the bow of the boat slamming up and down on the waves straight above me as I tried to kick out of the way in the strong current. I started to sink just a bit, but only enough to now panic that I was starting to go down, as my mask and nose filled with water and I forgot to breathe through the regulator in my mouth. My teacher appeared beside me, and kept pointing above at the boat, and telling my to go down, but by now I really couldn't. We went to the anchor line, and I could not stop the feelings of panic that were overtaking me, as waves kept breaking above my head, making it feel impossible to get my bearings and just calm down. As we talked she kept convincing me to just come down and it would be fine. After some time, I decided I just had to do it if I was going to make this happen, and deflated my vest and went down the rope with her. It felt so crazy. There was such a current that I had to use most of my strength to pull myself down the rope, with my regulator that you breathe into being knocked around and almost out of my mouth. We got to the bottom, and I could barely see in front of me because of all the sand flying around from the bottom. I did a couple of the skills exercises, but I just could not relax, no matter how hard I tried. I was breathing so hard, and couldn't pull myself together. It was the only panic attack (or close to it) that I've ever had. Finally, I had to signal to go up, and get back in the boat. I had to take a couple of minutes to pull myself together, and deal with my relief at being back on the boat and able to breathe, and my crushing disappointment in myself for not being able to pull it together. It really, really sucked. It was also freezing, as the wind creating all these waves was also creating a breeze that felt arctic after being in the water. As the horribleness continued, I soon started to feel sick from the insane rocking of the boat. Everyone came back up from their dive, and our instructor asked me if I wanted to come down for the next dive, and work on some more skills. By this time, that idea was pretty much incomprehensible, and I chose to sit it out. I laid down, trying to get rid of my nauseous feelings, and soon realized that was just not going to happen. Finally, encouraged by the boat captain, I threw up over the side, which I really couldn't believe. I've never gotten sick from a boat before...I did feel much better, but the progression of the day really was not a good one. I laid down on the boat seat, glad to be rid of my sickness, when the sky opened up and it began to pour rain. Can you believe this? Wearing just my swimsuit, the day had officially reached hellish proportions. By the time they came up from their last dive, I was almost blue with the cold and shivering uncontrollably. We drove the fifteen minutes back to the dock with all of us huddled on the floor freezing. Now, I am waiting to go back and take my test in about a half hour, trying to decide what the hell to do. Even as I write this, I feel kind of sick, but mostly, that panic that clutched me keeps coming back, even in this warm room, nice and dry. That fights in my head with the lovely calm and peacefulness of yesterday, and the feeling of accomplishment that came with it.

Even writing this, it's hard to explain exactly how scared I was. Maybe it's impossible to really let others get a sense of your deepest emotions (unless, maybe, you're a writer who far surpasses my talents). I do know that I haven't been that physically afraid for myself (possibly unreasonably) in a very, very long time, and there's something about the experience that has shaken me.

Dear God.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I. Love. Belize.

This is going to be my only post until I leave this island, as now seems like the perfect time to disconnect from the digital world.

After leaving Tulum, I ended up talking to this really nice family, who were telling me how much they loved Belize...11 years ago. This didn't give me much hope after seeing the Mexican coast. As I was saying, my basic plan was to skip Belize after hearing such negative things, but something about talking to them got me really excited to explore a little bit. I realized I am not going to be in this area for a long time (so much world to explore) and that it would be silly to not at least stay for a little while, especially since I now had to go through in order to get to Guatemala. I decided to go to Belize City, and hooked up with some Swedish people who were going too, since Belize City is supposed to be quite dangerous (and it certainly felt like it there). We stayed in this really bad hotel with the worst beds ever. Right before bed, this guy Magnus, one of the people I was with, was standing in front of the sink when a centipede came racing out of the wall heading straight for his foot. I told him to watch out, realized he wasn't going to, and knew I had to take drastic measures. It felt like some superhuman moment as I reached across, grabbed his arm and pulled with all my strength, and he leaped out of the way really just as the centipede was about to run into and probably sting his foot. But then we both leaped on the bed and were screaming and the superhuman moment was over. However, I did save him from a potentially trip-ruining bite. He was very thankful.

The next morning, all of us took the 45 minute water taxi over to Caye Caulker. I saw another dolphin jump by the boat on our ride! It was a gorgeous ride, with the sun shining down and the water splashing around us, once in a while slightly drenching me. The water, like in Mexico, is so beautiful, and as you alternate between deep water and shallow, the colors and landscape constantly change.

And now here we are. Here I am.

I. Love. This. Place.

It really feels like paradise here, for so many reasons. The second you get here, you just can't help but relax. This island is one of those places where you just have to let everything go. You can almost feel it saying "Come on, whatcha got? Stressed, tired, nervous? Doesn't matter here." And it doesn't. People are SO incredibly friendly, and I love the mix of locals and tourists having a good time together, rather than feeling the divide that exists in many places, especially places like the beach in Mexico, with all of the excess and luxury of the hotels and resorts there.

The whole island is only about 900 feet wide, and maybe 3 times that long, so you can watch sunrise from one side, and sunset from the other. The houses are all brightly colored and slightly weather worn from the ocean air. There are no cars here, only golf carts rolling along, and all of the streets are sand rather than asphalt. At night, it's cool enough to sleep well, and during the day, it's hot in the sun but perfect in the shade for me and my (going to stay white) skin. Amazingly, there are no mosquitoes here! The water is warm and gorgeous, and there's this great swimming area called the Split, where a recent hurricane literally cut part of the island off from the other part, and now there is a swimming area where the slight current keeps the water and sand clean and cool. There is a diving board with kids jumping off all day long, and a bar on the beach here, with picnic tables sunk into the shallow water, so you can sit and read with your legs in the water and a beer in your hand. The music is the obligatory reggae that is so right here, mixed with a little bit of old school Michael Jackson, and there is a palapa attached with hammocks full of people sleeping and reading. Yesterday I watched this guy kite surf for about an hour, doing incredible jumps and flips while he skimmed across the water. There was a big group of local old men playing dominoes, yelling and slamming the table exicitedly before they'd burst out laughing. The food here is ten times better than almost anything I've had, with delicious vegetables, fresher than fresh grilled seafood, smoothies and milkshakes with mango and pineapple, and....really good coffee! There is diving everywhere of course, and I'm thinking of getting my PADI diving certification here. I realized that I am quite afraid of the animals in the ocean, and my desire to explore the underwater conflicts with my intense fear of anything that can eat me in the ocean (which seems to be a lot of things). I really want to get over this and I suppose the only way to do so is to get in the ocean...with the evil sharks.

I am so happy here, and I realize that, while I had a really great time in Mexico, with many memorable experiences, this is the first time on my whole trip where I have really relaxed completely. It's such a good feeling, and I'm excited to spend a week or so here just unwinding. This, I suppose, is the beauty of not having a plan, something that has been both exciting and overwhelming on this trip. I love that I wasn't going to come here, and was able to change my plan on a moment's notice. I can't imagine now if I hadn't come here, it feels so right.

No more computers until I leave, so for now...

Lots of love and sunny island thoughts,