Tag Archives: Honduras

Waterfall

The next day I went to Pulhapanzak Falls with a small group of people staying at the D&D Brewery, including a fresh-faced American couple; a Brit who lived in LA and sold medical marijuana for a living; and a gorgeous Jordy by the name of Sandra. I had met Sandra the morning I was boarding Capitan Vern’s boat for Roatan. She was with Tyler, a Canadian boy with beautiful tatts. They had also met in Utila & become an odd pair of travelling companions for the time being… She was 46, well-travelled & gregarious. He was 25, softly spoken & travelling for the first time on his own. I just love seeing worlds collide like this… it would be a rare thing for two people from such different places to come together and take a trip like this.

We had heard about an unusual walk you could do, which took you behind the waterfall. It sounded beautiful. I envisaged the waters cascading gently over a large rocky overhang, and a generous ledge below, creating a gorgeous green walkway whereupon I might be able feel a misty spray softly caressing my face… sheer bliss.

The waterfall is 43m high. If you’re anything like me and don’t have a great sense of measurement (good news for the boys!) – this is roughly 14 stories high and about ½ the height of Niagara Falls. I am 1.63m, so this waterfall is 26 times my size. BIG.

We were met at the gate by a lovely local guide with beautiful blue eyes. He had a little middle aged spread going on and was thinning on top a little. I put him in his late 30s. I don’t know why but I found this slightly reassuring.

I had had issues in withdrawing cash from the only ATM in the tiny township of Pena Blanca on the way in, so when I found out the price (which was only 120 lempiras, but that was pretty much all I had on me), I decided I would just swim under the waterfall in the natural pools below.

Our guide wasn’t having any of that, and very generously organised for me to come anyway. Free. I was stunned to say the least.

So we all followed him down a proper walking trail and then across a treacherous boardwalk with a hand rail which opened up to lovely vistas of the waterfall.

And it was at this point, we got a sense of the scale of what we were about to do. And my first thought was this: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The waterfall was a big wild beast, thrashing about angrily. Completely unbridled. Ferocious. And loud. Really fucking loud.

We all looked at it and each other a little nervously. It was beautiful, there was no doubting that. But the part of my brain that conceives things like a gorgeously produced cinematic commercial shot in New Zealand very quickly woke up to itself.

This was not going to be a walk in the park. And our guide was clearly a psychopath in sheep’s clothing.

He made us strip down to our swimmers and take off our shoes. We then walked through a gate which said ‘Enter at your own risk’ or something like that in Spanish. And then we hiked barefoot over sharp and slippery rocks. Anyone that knows anything about me knows I am not the most stable on my feet in the best of conditions. I have managed to trip over skirting boards in your standard suburban home. So, I was feeling a tad anxious before we even got to the waterfall’s edge.

So it was all a bit of a scramble but as we got closer to the waterfall, the moss and mud start dissipating and the rocks become a little easier to grip with my toes.

My Dad is bit of a boulderer… I am, and always will be, grateful to him for leading me through many a rock-hopping expedition around the beaches of Coledale, Wombarra and Scarborough when I was a whippersnapper. What better way for a father & daughter to while away the hours together?

However even my Dad for all his ‘get-into-it’ country-boy attitude would have taken one look at this thing, shaken his head, laughed, and just said very firmly, “you can have THAT.”

me, on the other hand… well… I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

We got to the left hand side of the waterfall and were instantaneously saturated. It was so noisy, we had to yell to be heard. Our guide took my hand, and started leading me through the waterfall. Not behind it. But THROUGH it. We were clinging to the very rockface the water was smashing against. There was no large overhang. There was no generous ledge. And there was definitely no freakin Puccini.

At some points of the ‘walk’, we had no more than a couple of rocks underfoot that were, at best, a metre wide. Which sounds like a lot if you’re not dealing with angry rampaging waters trying to smash you to a pulp.

For parts of it, it was impossible to see anything. Zip. Nada. Cero. And at one point, the force of the water pushed away my bathers, exposing both of my breasts. While I am normally a bit shy when it comes to nuding up in front of complete strangers – in the threat of certain death: it was the least of my concerns. Hell, that waterfall could have completely disrobed me and I wouldn’t have cared less.

Every couple of metres, there’d be a reprise of sorts, and we were standing on a slightly wider ledge and the waters would be merely violent as opposed to life-threatening. I didn’t realise how scared I was until I saw the look in the others’ eyes. My heart was in amplified overdrive. I had definitely gone into survival mode. It was now just a matter of getting out alive.

There was also a small cave towards the end, which we took refuge in. We got our breath back. And looked at each other in the darkness with utter disbelief. Laughing like maniacs. It dawned on us what a ridiculously dangerous situation we had put ourselves in. And then we realised we had to go back.

We did. And it was a bit easier the second time round, knowing what to expect. But still a crazy hectic motherass thing to do. We came out the other end, panting and laughing. There was a lot of woo-hooing. Moreover for the fact that we were alive than anything else.

Once I stopped giggling like a lunatic, I thanked our guide for ensuring I got to do this. It ranked right up there with jumping out of an aeroplane at 14,500 feet when I was 21. I gave him my last 100lemps as a tip, figuring I had enough money to get me to the other village down the road, to try a different ATM (which happily provided).

We got back to D&D and downed many home-made beers (including a newly tapped blueberry infused beer) celebrating our survival. Skye eventually turned up from Copan Ruins and we caught up on our time apart. A tasty broccoli soup for dinner and I was not long for bed. I slept like a log that night.

The next day, Skye & I visited the Taulabe Caves. They have paved and lit the first 3 or 400m and apparently exploration has gone as far in as 12km. There’s a lot of stalagmites and stalactites and unusual rock formations – the most impressive to my eye was an angel’s wing maybe 3 metres high. But the thing that was really unusual about these caves is that they are really hot & humid. It gets up to 32 degrees Celsius, due to the fact they are steeped in volcanic grounds.

We hired a guide who took us past the lit paved part and into the batty bits of the cave. It was pretty muddy and slippery and all a bit of a scramble. Towards the end of the hike, one of the rocky ledges we had to climb proved a bit too tricky for me to lever myself up on. My Archilles’ was playing up and the tread on my boots were proving useless, so I opted to sit and wait for Skye and the guide to complete the course. I turned off my torch and sat in the complete blackness, listening to the sound of small bat wings flutter past. My eyes never adjusted for the whole time and I couldn’t see a thing. It was way cool.

Back at the Brewery, we jumped in the pool set in amongst the pretty jungly gardens and cooled off with a couple of pale ales. The manager brought us chocolate-covered strawberries and I told him he was my new favourite person. A softly spoken Manchurian bloke with a cheeky sense of humour and a great chest – I had developed a bit of a crush on Anthony. The chocolate covered strawberries just sealed the deal.

Later that night the ex-manager, a guy called John and his big beautiful brown dog called Lucy; Skye; Anthony and I did our best to empty the bar. Well, Lucy didn’t drink because she’s a dog. But the rest of us gave it a good nudge. Skye and I went to bed with only a couple of hours til the alarm was due to go off.

5.30am and we set off for a 2 day trip to get to Leon in Nicaragua. Me with raging hangover (do you see a pattern emerging here?) And poor old Skye who was sick as a dog with a serious fever and a dreadful cough. 12 hours on 7 buses (not counting the hours of wait times in between), 4 taxis, and 1 very difficult border crossing in the pouring rain, and we finally arrived.

Yet to go out & explore as it’s raining like all get out, at the moment, but a bit excited to be here.

*Disclaimer: I don’t think chocolate-covered strawberries being delivered to you poolside is necessarily included in the price of your room at D&D.

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Drowning not waving

I found Captain Vern, who takes punters direct from Utila to Roatan aboard a lovely catamaran. The trip’s more expensive than taking two ferries to and from La Ceiba, but I thought it worth it for the time and mucking around I would save myself. We picked up 10 hungover-looking Danish girls who slept dotted about the boat for the entire trip. I chatted with the only other passenger – an young island boy who was very easy on the eye.

It was raining when I alighted so I jumped in a cab, only to see Skye happily sloshing around barefoot in the mud a little ways up the road. She jumped in, and came back with me to our hostel. I argued with the cabbie over the fare as is fast becoming my personal custom in any new place (he tried to charge me double coz Skye had gotten in the car. The ride was less than 3 minutes long. Fucker.) We checked me in to our simple wooden cabin which was ensconced in a lush green rainforest at the West Bay end of the island.

I showed Skye my sandlfy bites and she oohed and ahhed sympathetically: it was good to be in the company of an old mate. Skye and I met about 10 years ago when she was doing her undergraduate, and I was working at the University of Wollongong. We had been introduced through our incorrigible & infectious friend, Mikey and his soul-soothing lady, Jody. The pair of them had gathered around them the most gorgeous group of girls & boys – many of whom I am pleased to still call friends to this day.

Skye & I had only really spent time together at a collection of crazy college house parties… and while we had very likely shared a little history & possibly even bared our souls to one another – both of us admitted to not really remembering a lot from those days.

What I do know is this: Skye always had a big bright sunny smile on her dial; she was always doing something interesting – whether that be sailing through the Whitsundays or doing a marine science post grad; and she seemed to be very easy-going. I was looking forward to spending some quality time with her and hearing her stories. We had similar intentions for travel for the next month or so. It would be nice to have some company on the road.

We went & got some groceries and booze, and spent the rest of the day just mooching about, getting to know each other and catching up. I organised some diving for the next couple of days with an outfit called Ocean Connection. We played cards with our neighbours that night: a couple of amiable lads from Montana who were getting their Dive Certificates.

Over the next two days, I went out diving with Stefan the Swede in the mornings. I’ve been very lucky to get DMs all to myself. I much prefer this, than to diving in a large group because you’re always going to be at the mercy of the people who chew through their air (it’s standard practice that a dive ends when any one person gets low on air). Stefan had great eyes (for spotting stuff as opposed to the colour of) and was extraordinarily excitable under water. He kept yelling thru his reg and waving his arms about wildly. He was a bit odd, but I liked him.

There were schools and schools of fish. Loads of pretty plants. And on both days, we got to see graceful turtles gently gliding through the gardens.

On one dive, we did a swim-through and were greeted by thousands and thousands of silverfish, swarming. I couldn’t see Stefan’s fins at one point, there were so many of them. Just incredible.

We saw a small pod of dolphins during a surface interval. I wanted to jump in the water with them, but they were moving at a cracking pace. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up.

We also saw loads of little nudibranchs. Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug without shells. There’s some 3,000 different species that have been identified. They’re typically tiny (starting from as little as ½ cm) and characteristically colourful with pretty patterns – a lot of them have ‘feathers’ and ‘horns’. I’ve since discovered they’re also hermaphrodites. I’d encourage you to Google images of them. Soooo pretty!

And then there were the Christmas Tree Worms. These shy little things sport spiraling plumes that resemble a firey red fir. They’re about 2.5cm in size and when you click your fingers, they rapidly withdraw into themselves, so you can’t see them anymore. There’s a lot of animals (and some plants) that do this. You have to have a keen eye for detail to see them in action. They always startle me, in the happiest of ways.

Alternatively, there are those who are very curious and will come up to you for a closer inspection, and will keep you company for a while.

Some sea creatures are sublime show-offs, mincing about like drag queens at Mardi Gras.

Mostly though, everyone’s a bit nonplussed by your presence.

I love being underwater (as you’ve probably guessed by now). I believe neither a five year old child nor an acid-loving hippy would have the vision to imagine this world. A world of weird creatures who live in a luscious landscape which waves at you as you weightlessly wander on by. I am a child in this watery wonderland: curious, enchanted, surprised, delighted, astonished, happy.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to drown and I imagine it would be such a tranquil way to go, once you accepted your fate.

Skye and I spent the afternoons eating, drinking, chatting, reading, and sleeping; and the evenings doing the same. We both were ready to leave after just a couple of days. Roatan is a nice enough island but food & lodgings are quite expensive in comparison to the rest of Honduras. Only the diving is dirt cheap. And for someone like Skye, who can’t dive due to a heart problem – there’s not a lot to do. The beach is not a lie-about type of beach, for all its nasty sandflies. There’s virtually no nightlife to speak of, at least not in wet season.

We decided to catch an 8 minute (!) flight to Le Ceiba, primarily because there wasn’t a lot of price difference between that and catching a 2.5 hour ferry. Chuck in a collective bus ride, a taxi, and the checking in business & we didn’t save ourselves any time in the end. But it was good for the novelty factor. It was only mid-flight, I realised I shouldn’t really be flying after doing a dive the previous day. Hopefully I won’t get decompression sickness!

We caught the bus to San Pedro Sula together and then went our separate ways. Skye to Copan to see the ruins. And I came straight here. I’m currently staying at the D&D Brewery, right by Honduras’ largest lake, Lago de Yojoa. It’s super pretty here – lots of green stuff, bucketloads of birds, and big beautiful butterflies. There’s a lot to do here: a few hiking trails, some caves, a 43m waterfall, a coffee plantation, some small ruins, and so I’m told: good bird-watching (although I’m not sure I’m old enough for that just yet).

I’m just taking it easy today… a bit of a reading / research day… the rainforesty gardens of the brewery are just perfect for this kind of day, and there’s a pool if it gets hot later. I’m starting to think ahead to Colombia. Which is a while away, but I’m keen to organise where i’m going to live for the month of Dec while I do some volunteering and take some more Spanish lessons.

Skye is meeting me here tonight or tomorrow, so I’ll wait for her before we set off on some adventures.

Synchronicity

The past week has been filled with lots of simple pleasures… a lot of time with spent with new friends, delicious food, poking my head around doors for a stickybeak, taking photos… i also took some more Spanish lessons (yo tengo muchos verbos, pero es necesarrio que la practica mi conjugacions. Yo soy retarda.)

Monday night, I went back to Reilly’s to host trivia but they had another bloke lined up (they had forgotten to tell me) so i wound up drinking instead. No problema. I swapped the prep work I’d done for a t-shirt and a shot. It was a good night. They’re a fun bunch of people who work there. I hung out at the back bar which Heather was working. It was nice to meet a girl close to my own age. We hit it off, and she invited me to join her at a spa later in the week to celebrate her birthday.

On Wednesday, i went out to run some errands (astounding how you can still come up with a ½ decent ‘To Do’ list, even when you’re just bumming about in Central America). I was standing outside a little cafe i hadn’t been to yet perusing the menu, when two older blokes waved me in – insisting the food was terrific. And it was. I had a tasty felafel in a pita with lots of fresh salady stuff, and a spicy red home-made shrimp picante that was to die for. I had a quick chat with one of the blokes, Stan, before setting off. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Aussie Dave & Kiwi Suze (who Sparkles had introduced me to) invited me around for dinner that night. We shared some wine & a tasty feed of quesadillas. Dave and Suze are really well-travelled and good conversationalists. I really enjoyed their company – even though Dave decided I was a bit of a bogan. We had a good laugh. We ended up in a bar called Lava, and met the owner – a dude from Perth who insisted on buying us drinks. We figured it’d be rude to say no. Afterwards they took me to the Van Man. A man who sold carne tortas from the back of his car down in the sketchy part of town for 20 pretzels. Finally, drunk food!

I later got to thinking about the bar owner… ‘how does one end up owning a bar overseas?’ I wondered how easy it would be. What kind of money would it take? Did he make a good living from it?’ While I don’t seriously think I’d venture into hospitality, and I’m not sure it would be in Guatemala … the idea is definitely something I’ve parked.

The next day I was out to lunch at a great lil Asian place with Shelby, when who should walk by, but Stan! I called him in and he joined us for lunch. I can’t think of too many situations where I’d invite a random old man to join me and my young friend for lunch. But it’s starting to feel like the norm, now.
Stan is sharp. He used to be a bigwig for a major financial institute in the States. He’s been living in Antigua for three years. He kinda fell into this business exporting jade jewellery, all centred around the Mayan zodiac. When he learned of my professional background, he asked me to do some consulting work for him. It’s totally feasible I can do this while on the road. Earning money while I travel. What’s not to love? I’ll let you know how I get on with this.

I spent some time hanging out with Shelby, just listening to music & gossiping. I did a bit of sweet negotiation and got her a good price on my apartment, so she could move out of a shitty host family situation. She was absolutely delighted. And so she should be. My apartment feels like a real home. (Albeit a noisy one, on the chicken bus road into town.) I have been very happy there. Blanca and Enrique are good landlords. And with our teacher Phil, who’s an ex-cop, living next door, she’ll have someone who’s got her back.

Shelby informs me I’m older than her mum. Which kinda of weirded me out. But she also reassures me I’m much younger than her mum in many ways & that she could hang out with me for days. I guess there is a big part of me that’s become quite maternal over the girl. She’s incredibly brave and smart but she’s also giving to a fault, and a bit naive. Shelby’s going to learn a lot of lessons the hard way – the same as the rest of us, but she’s going to be doing it in a foreign country and without the usual networks to rely on. I reckon Shelby’s got guts. And you could do a lot worse than to have a daughter like her.

I also spent a bit of time with Jenny. And the more time i spend with Jenn, the more I want. She’s an incredibly solid bird but she’s led this rich & full, risk-taking life. The older people I have met here in Antigua all have one thing in common – they’ve all got these lively eyes shining a light on their bright minds. They just radiate energy. They’ve all got stories. And they’re still making stories. None of this getting old business for them. And Jenny’s no exception. She was very generous in sharing so much of herself with me. It’s funny, because Jenn is old enough to be my mum and I feel like Shelby, I could just hang out with her for days. She’s simply inspiring. You’d be a very lucky person to have a mum like Jenn.

There was around about 20 years difference between Shelby and me, and about the same again between me and Jenn. Although we three are incredibly different, I felt like Shelby showed me how far i’ve come in the past 2 decades and Jenn was showing me what i can look forward to.

And I’m crying fiercely as I write this because I realise that meeting these two gutsy gorgeous girls isn’t about connecting for a moment, it’s about connecting for a lifetime. And that’s something I never expected to get out of doing the TEFL course.

On my last day, i got up early to meet Heather and another one of her friends. We went to this stunning spa resort built from stones, high up on a hill in a place called Lago Amatitlan (not to be confused with Lago Atitlan). We spent a very girly day in thermal pools which were filled with water from Volcan Pacaya. We enjoyed a sauna, and then had massage, facial and chocolate scrub. It was 6 hours of sheer bliss. And all for the price of a massage back home. By the end of the day, Heather was talking about possibly coming to meet me in Colombia for Christmas. I hope she does.

I had one last Spanish lesson with my wonderfully nutty teacher, Sandra and said goodbye to girls in the office of my school. I dropped in on Jenn on my way home to squeeze one last hour in. I couldn’t actually bring myself to say goodbye to Jenn: “Nos vemos” translates to “See you later” and I hoped I would. I got home, knocked on Phil’s door and was happy to find him home. I told him I would collect him to have a couple of last socials at La Sala, so I could say one last farewell to Shelby.

Well of course two drinks is never two drinks, especially when your drinking buddy is double fisting. We ended up at Gaia where his friend, Patty worked. We had a few more there and then got some takeaways. It ended up being a very late drunken night, a lot of talking shit and some damn fine home-made drunk food.

I ended up falling into bed with less than 2 hours til the alarm was due to go off at 3am. I woke up still completely dressed (always a good sign) to the sound of my doorbell going off. I had turned off my alarm, and fallen back asleep. So despite all best intentions for a completely different night and a relaxed wake-up, get ready – it was a stupid mad scramble to get my shit together and get out the door as quickly as possible. Miraculously, I didn’t forget anything or fall over. I did however forget to brush my teeth. So, here I am on bus after 14.5 hrs seriously considering a month off the booze. And my teeth feel furry.

Welcome to Honduras.

Running up that hill

Last Monday, we had our second last day of class. We had a paper and a portfolio to turn in the next day, but I managed to get 99% of it done by the time London Mike bowled in from San Andres that afternoon.

I had somehow managed to score myself a ‘job’ hosting trivia up at the Irish pub and I was due to start at 7, so I made arrangements to meet him beforehand for dinner & drinks.

I was having a post-class bevy the week before, minding my own business, when I got the gig. I got talking to the bartender who suggested I stick around for trivia that night. I mentioned that I used to host a night in Sydney, the boss overheard me & asked me, “Would you like to host ours next week?”

Sure. Why not.

He gave me a one pager which answered most of my questions. I asked him how much he’d pay me. He said he’d pay me with a dinner and all I could drink. I laughed and asked him if he knew I was Australian. We shook hands, and that was that.

London Mike and I had met in San Ignacio Belize, had met up again in Flores (in the north of Guatemala) and had kept in touch while we both studying. Sometimes when you meet people on the road, they remind you of friends back home and it instantaneously feels familiar. It’s like that with Mike, who I had nicknamed Sparkles. We were both looking forward to catching up and letting our hair down a bit.

It was a pretty international crowd at Riley’s and they got rowdier & rowdier as the night went on, but it was a fun night. Sparkles pitched in with the scoring and music round, so it was an easy night for me. I drank like drinking was a sport, and I was representing Australia. We stayed until stumps. Sparkles walked me to my door and stumbled off into the distance to his hotel.

On Tuesday, I woke up with a raging hangover the size of a Whopper burger. I only just scraped through that last day of school, and somehow managed to finish all my work.

I called Sparkles, when I knocked off. He was having a social in a nice little courtyard bar with Dave – an Aussie bloke he’d bonded with during a small bus crash up north. I met them for a beer. We later met another one of Sparkle’s mates on a rooftop bar, a young Scottish lad by the name of Cameron, who would come to make a really big impression on me in a very short space of time. We ended up in the bar where Shelby sells shots on Ladies’ Night. You can get a plate of nachos about the size of a horse’s head at Monoloco’s. I kid you not. And damn good they are, too. So we did. Many beers later and I have to say I don’t really remember much of the night.

I collected Sparkles on Wednesday morning, we went to the markets to get some stuff for dinner, and then went for a walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross). I can see it from my lil casa. It’s lit up at night, providing a nifty navigational point if you’re really drunk. I’m sure that’s not what it was designed for, but it’s come in handy a couple of times. There’s a great vista of the city from up there. It was a cracker of a day, so we decided to go back to the Sky Cafe to get the photos we missed the day before. We ambled about a bit more and then went our separate ways for a few hours.

I had him and my lovely teacher, now neighbour (just call him Stalker Phil) over for a roast dinner. Phil’s from Watford and there’s not a lot of English folk here, so I thought he might appreciate Mike’s company and a traditional English meal. I did a bloody good job of it, even if I do say so myself and we had a very civilised night.

Thursday, Sparkles and I were up at 6 to climb Pacaya, an active volcano about 1 & ½ hrs drive from here. After being dormant for a century, it erupted violently in 1965 and has been erupting continuously since then. The last time was in May last year. It rises to an elevation of 2,552m which is just slightly higher than Mt Kosciusko, NSW.

I leaned in to talk with Sparkles at one point on the bus trip in, and all I could smell was booze. I don’t think I smelt much better, truth be told.

It was a hard 1 & ½ hour hike up a pretty steep incline. I was bringing up the rear of our group, huffing & puffing and behind me were about ½ dozen caballeros – basically dudes with horses. The word translates to gentlemen in Spanish, but they were pissin’ me off by breathing down the back of my neck and asking me if I wanted a “taxi” the whole freakin way. As much as I would have loved to have jump on one, I knew I would regret it if I did. The only way you’d get me on one of those things is if I was with a particular group of friends and we were in fancy dress. You know who you are.

I made it. And it was totally worth it. Even though, we didn’t have the clearest day, it was simply stunning in a very surreal way. It was like standing on another planet. Volcanic ash is like rough, rocky black sand. There was a remarkable amount of tenacious greenery growing. Smoke billowed from natural potholes. We climbed into a big one and it was like stepping into a natural sauna in the cloudy chill cloaking the mountain. We toasted marshmallows, and breathed in the sharp crisp air.

I had an afternoon kip, and later that night, met up with Phil, Sparkles and Cameron and a few others at Gaia – a gorgeous hookah bar with lush cushions and beautiful decor. We had a few drinks and easy conversation, while an awesome local band played. Albeit too loudly. But hey, it’s Latin America – they don’t do ambience here.

Friday afternoon, Sparkles, Cameron and I had a very cultural afternoon. We stopped into La Merced, which is a building I’ve walked past nearly every day. It used to be an old monastery, which was built in the 1700s. Outside, there are all these intricate white religious carvings, niched into the happy yellow walls. Inside is surprisingly massive and the courtyard features the largest water fountain in Antigua. From the top terrace, you’ll get a great view of Volcán de Fuego, which you can see almost everywhere from this pretty little city. But not like this.

We then walked up to a place called Casa Santa Domingo, a glorious old hotel which is situated in the stupidly beautiful grounds of another monastery. We wondered around for a while, oohing and ahhing at the gardens and the statues
and the art and the relics and the pretty Scarlet Macaws, which are kinda like rainbow lorikeets but bigger and brighter.

From there, we got a ride in a fancy golf cart to a place called El Tenedor del Cerro (which translates to “the fork on the hill”). It’s essentially a wedding reception venue / high-end restaurant, but the reason we went there is because the place offers what has to be the best views of the city, and all throughout the grounds is this eclectic collection of completely unexpected weird-arse large-scale sculpture by lauded local artists. We spent a good couple of hours there, taking photos and fooling around.

We missed the return shuttle so I flagged down a fancy car to hitch a ride back down the hill. The wife of the Guatemalan driver was an American lady, all decked out in jewels. I asked her for her story and she told us she had been living here on-and for some 30 odd years. Her mother was a missionary who took in 58 orphans and gave them a home. She told us she was still in contact with many of them. Amazing story right there in a 15 min drive. Awesome stuff.

We parted ways for a bit of downtime. The boys had to pack as they were both leaving the next day. Cameron back home to pick up his studies back in Scotland. And Sparkles was headed for Honduras. We met up one last time at Monoloco with all their mates. Many beers and many silly photos later, I bid my farewell to them both rather unceremoniously, given how much I had enjoyed their company. It’s very likely Sparkles & I will be able to link up again in Nicaragua. and I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron rocks up on my doorstep one day.

I’ve spent the last two days just chilling out, mucking around on my new netbook, listening to music, watching movies, cooking meals and drinking wine. I did venture out yesterday afternoon for a tasty Asian meal and a poke around a contemporary artist’s workshop, but apart from that – it’s been
pretty quiet since the boys left town. Which has been fine by me…

Take me to the river

In San Ignacio, I found myself a cheap room in a buggy guesthouse which was run by a bossy Spanish speaking lady. A long cool shower for a hot & sweaty (and not in a sexy way) girl and then off to find dinner – which ended up being pizza in a bar while listening to David Bowie and Creedence Clearwater.

The next day I moved to the guesthouse next door (Mallorca), which was much cleaner and run by a lovely Spanish speaking lady.

I ambled about the little village, taking photos and chatting to people in the street. I found a proper coffee shop above the street run by an American ex-pat, Sean who made a very decent latte. I spent a bit of time catching up on emails, writing and reading.

I later went to Maya Walk office which had been recommended to me, and booked myself on the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) tour. The manager invited me to come back for happy hour at their newly opened bar, run by a lovely, softly spoken man by the name of Smokey. It was there I met London Mike and Canadian Steve, who’d met each other somewhere along the way and become traveling companions for the time being. Mike was also on a career break (few of us out there) and was headed to Guatemala as well. They had done the ATM caves that day and were raving about it.

I’ve regressed back into nana-dom again, rising at 6, going to bed at 10 – so I called it after just a few drinks and a feed at a gorgeous lil restaurant called Ko-Ox Han Nah where I had a terrific lamb curry. Been a while since I’ve had either lamb, or curry. It was good on the entry. Not so good on the exit.

On the morning of Thursday 18 August, the tour group convened at Smokey’s bar.

A cool cat with a big ‘fro called Jay sat next to me. He was from Harlem and we struck up an instant rapport. He ended up being gorgeous on all accounts.

On the bus I got talking to a vibrant young thing from Toowoomba – who looked like your archetypical surfer chick. She had gone to NYC to try her hand in the cut-throat fashion world there.

As the gringo trail / small world would have it – it turned out she had been traveling with Nathan, prior to him joining me on the sailing tour. He had spoken to both of us about the other, but I hadn’t known her forward travel plans and she was under the impression I was heading south along the Honduras coast line. Which had totally been the plan up until I’d gotten to Placenta.

* * *

Actun Tunichil Muknal means cave of the stone sepulcher. It’s a significant Mayan archaeological site, which is only accessible in the company if an official guide. We started off with two mini buses, but one of them broke down shortly into the journey, so all the people on the other bus piled onto ours. It was a bumpy, squishy ride over rough roads for nearly an hour.

It was then a gentle hike through some pretty bushland. We got to the site and were given helmets with flashlights, which Jay got pretty excited about. No briefing. Just off we go. What’s a waiver?

We crossed three small rivers to get to the mouth of the cave which was just pretty as you please, with cool crystal clear fresh water. The lighting through the trees gave the water a gorgeous translucent green color.

We strapped on our helmets and waded through neck-deep cold water for a few meters into the pitch black. If I’d had a hat and a stock whip, I would have felt like Indiana Fucking Jones.

We then followed in the footsteps of the great Mayans, scrambling over limestone rocks which were speckled with crystally flecks, shimmering under our headlights.

Every now and then our guide, Danny would stop and point out unusual rock formations, some of which had been altered to look like, or cast shadows of certain gods or animals…

He shared with us his comprehensive knowledge of the ceremonies that took place here. It was like a ‘living’ museum in that there were many remains of relics from the rituals. We saw skulls and bones which stone had ‘grown’ over (i think this is called calcification) and various pieces of ceramics and stoneware which had been utilized in the ceremonies.

The highlight of the tour was seeing the full skeleton of a teenage Mayan girl, who is known as the Crystal Maiden and who was sacrificed to the gods.

The whole experience was simply spectacular. I think one of the things that made it even more amazing for me was the thought that up until 1986, the cave had been undiscovered. Just call me Frontier Girl.

I met up with Jay and the two Carolines for a few drinks later that eve. I asked Smokey to deal a game of Blackjack for us, and he was happy oblige.

My ATM crew left the next morning for Flores. I met up with Smokey to visit a small but pretty local ruin at the top of the hill with amazing vistas; and then I spent the afternoon just chilling out.

On Saturday morning, I went to the markets with a bloke called Pices (or something like that). I had been under the impression it was was going to be this massive Mecca for artisans, but it was more like a farmer’s market. We had brekky and Pices told me his dreams of escaping to a big city. He wished it was him who was leaving, and me who was staying. I had enjoyed the little village of San Ignacio but I was glad that wasn’t the case.

I had spent 3 weeks in Belize and loved my time there. I would recommend it to anyone who wants something a little different (it’s a really multicultural country) but easy (everyone speaks English). The Caribbean coastline is just gorgeous. It’s warm all year round. You can have lobster for breakfast. The diving and snorkeling is stunning. It’s steeped in a really rich Mayan history. The people have a great sense of humor. And most importantly, the beer is cheap.

Having said all that, I was looking forward to getting my Guatemala on.

Islands in the stream

I met my hotel neighbors the next day, Jessica and Andy – two friends from the States, both teachers. Adventurous spirits with amicable demeanors. Jess was on a 5 week vacation, while Andy was also taking a sabbatical. We shared some laughs and a meal that night. As it turned out, they were also going to take the Raggamuffin sailing trip on Friday.

In the meantime – Nathan, who I’d met when he was interning with the Opera House had been in touch and was talking about linking up.

The trip was a 3 day island hopping tour all the way down to Placencia  with a crew of local reggae-loving lads. The tour would include various snorkeling stops and camping on remote cayes in the Caribbean.

There were 18 of us boarding a 50 foot yacht. It seemed really small for how many we were.

There was a Dutch couple. I had dived the Blue Hole with Peter: he was a little eccentric but completely likable & Lariesa, who was just a doll.
Kelly – a smart, sassy, well-travelled Canadian, who I took a real liking to, and her gorgeous Mexican beau, Santiago. Then there was Jess and Andy; me and Nathan – who had made it at the eleventh hour!

Also on the boat were a pair of Italian doctors on their honeymoon, who mostly kept to themselves. 5 private school boys on their gap year / bromance holiday, who were carrying with them a satellite phone and GPS system (maybe they had plans to go to the Antarctic after the Caribbean. Dunno.) Another pair of English lads, who played a lot of chess. And a rather uptight Irish girl who told me she didn’t like reggae and insisted I didn’t get any sand in the tent we were sharing. (Umm. Hello. We’re on a freaking island, love. Jesus wept.)

I had two Firsts that day: as I was boarding – the Captain asked me if I fancied a foursome. I just laughed. I was starting to realize that Belizean men will have a crack at anything that is female and remotely single. They’ve got a Beavis & Butthead sense of humor, are very cheeky, can handle a heckle back, and are in essence – absolutely harmless.

My second First for the day was at the initial snorkeling stop. Everyone was faffing about, so I jumped in and was half-way around the little round reef, when I saw a big flash of grey-white sea-animal swimming, maybe 5 meters away from me. A manatee! I screamed out to the others who were on the boat still.

I had hoped to see one, but didn’t think it was actually going to happen.
I’m normally a lot more respectful, but i got a little crazy curious and finned fast & furiously to get a closer look. I think I was scaring her a little, as she started speeding up and away. She had a bulbous body shaped a bit like a seal but around 2-3 times the size. She had a small whale-like tail, that reminded me of a mermaid. I didn’t catch a look at her face. I suddenly realized what I was doing and stopped pursuing her, and watched her glide gracefully off into the distance. I was absolutely thrilled as sightings of these strange creatures are quite rare. I petulantly wanted more.

We stopped that night an island called Rendezvous Caye (northern) but not before picking up a random who was out in the middle of nowhere on this big fuck-off boat with a bunch of chairs on it. Quite strange. He was wearing a bright orange life jacket and boardies. He was very happy to see us. He came with us to the island, opened the toilets for us, and took on the role of our security guard for the evening. Pirates, maybe?

Rendezvous was tiny. As in you could walk around it in 15 minutes tiny.  There was a jetty, two palapas, maybe a dozen coconut trees and that was it. Population: zero. We were all so thrilled to get there. There was a lot of squealing from us girls, and backslapping from the boys. I think we all felt like proper pioneers!

We set up our tents while the crew did their thing. Another snorkel and we were called for dinner, a simple but delicious meal of ceviche and jerk chicken with the omnipresent rice & beans. The fruity rum punch flowed, we all got rather pissed quickly and ended up falling into our beds before 10.

The crew of the boat were a real highlight for me:
Raf was our relaxed Captain, who was clearly very knowledgeable about the entire area we covered in our trip and had done this dozens of times before. He ran a pretty tight operation, all things considered. He told me at the end of the trip, he didn’t usually socialize as much as he had done with us.

There was Shane, who sported a massive smile on his dial, had the ohccent yah mohn, and loved a smoke but I’m not altogether confident he abided by the other laws of the Rastafarian religion though.

Jacob was my favorite. 24 and covered in an array of tatts including a couple of distinct ones on his biceps: Fuck U Haters; and Trust No Bitch. But he was a real example of never judge a hook by its cover. He nicknamed me Vegemite and we developed a playful brother-sister relationship, tormenting the shit out of one another the whole time.

He gave me a compliment which made me swell with pride when he told me I could skin dive better than some men he knew and that I could potentially become a good spear fisherwoman. He gave me a gun at one point, and told me to go out on my own – but I didn’t find a single fish. They must have known i was coming. There’s a part of me that quite likes the idea of catching my own dinner. I blame my Dad for that. He raised me a bit of a tomboy. Albeit one who likes getting a pedicure.

Our second day was much the same: sailing, sunning ourselves & snorkeling. That night we set up camp at a place called Tobacco Caye. This place had a lot more infrastructure. Enough for the 20 residents and a few visitors anyway. A couple of simple cabanas, a store, 2 bars, and a dive shop.

5 of us took the opportunity to dive with Eric, a quietly spoken man who showed us one of the most unvisited parts of the Reef. Sadly it wasn’t as fishy as I had hoped… There are a lot of lion fish down these parts… They’re an introduced species, who eat a lot of the local fish, but they have no natural predators of their own, down here. They mature within a 6 week period and are causing a lot of exponential damage to the Reef. We also saw a lot of pollution caused mostly by fertilizers. Algae is spreading, so visibility wasn’t so great. Having said that, I’ve never seen such lush underwater vegetation.

Afterwards, tired of the sickly sweet rum punch, we consumed many many Belekins at one of the bars close to our campsite and enjoyed another great dinner (curry shrimp) prepared by our trusty crew.

We later went and watched a Garifunan drumming session at the other bar, and danced with the locals under the light of a full moon. I shook what my mama gave me, while Nathan shook the maracas. The English lads let loose as well, busting out a few moves on the deck.

I laughed my arse off with the unassuming Jess who I diagnosed with a form of sex turrets: She would just very suddenly yell out something completely inappropriate as a response to anything that could be misinterpreted. Case in point: Eric was trying to describe the size of something (it was “Big.” “And Black.”) And Jess’ loud response was “What?” “A donkey dick?” The thing that got to me was she just didn’t seem the type. I loved the juxtaposition. I was doubled over, clutching my belly and crying with laughter. Meanwhile, I think Eric was a bit confused. I still have no idea what he was trying to describe.

I woke up the next day with an absolutely shocking hangover. I drank some water and immediately felt like throwing up. I stood up and immediately felt like throwing up. I sat down and immediately felt like throwing up. The wind was quite literally making my head hurt. The gorgeous Dutch girl gave me some ibroprofun. I tried eating breakfast and immediately felt like throwing up. This. Was. Not. Good. I had to get on a boat, for goodness sake. I went and saw the Captain and got some seasickness tablets. I went for a swim. About an hour later I stopped feeling like I would throw up. I spent the whole day out on the deck in the partial shade, snoozing and being quite unsociable.

We eventually arrived at Placencia (which I kept wanting to call Placenta) mid afternoon. We were all a wee bit weary and keen for a shower and a comfy bed with AC.

Peter, Lareisa, Jess, Andy, Santi, Kelly and Nathan and I all scored rooms at a nice hotel on the beach with a bunch of hammocks under a palapa. We spent the next day chilling out, chatting and planning the next legs of our individual trips. Well, they planned. I got as far as deciding between Honduras, Gautemala and Costa Rica.

On Tuesday, we said our goodbyes and went out separate ways. I missed the first Hokey Pokey Water Taxi because I had got chatting to some dude who had spent 7 years in jail for a murder he said he didn’t commit. I bought a book of his poetry. I ended up getting the midday boat. I was the only gringo in this dinky tinny of a thing that I kept thinking was going to sink. We motored up Mango Creek at breakneck speed with me beaming all the way.

I made my way to Sherl’s Diner where an old John Wayne western was on the telly. I ordered the pork stew and waited for the chicken bus to the Belmopan, Belize’s capital.

The bus took us through lush green rolling hills, spotted with shacks and houses in varying shades of pastel and varying degrees of dilapidation. The cute little kids with their cornrow hair stared at me the whole time on the bus. I amused myself by trying to get a smile out of them by pulling funny faces.

I picked up a connecting bus into San Ignacio which arrived just before dusk.

Wed 17 August

My island home

I spent the next day traveling from Merida to Cancun.

I spent a few hours there, shopping for supplies I thought might be harder to come by, or more expensive on the island.
So if you recall, my experience of Downtown Cancun when i first came to Isla – was that it was just awful. The Hotel Zone in Cancun is also awful. It’s just shiny awful.
Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not good in shopping malls at the best of times. All that fluro lighting, bad music, all those people (don’t get me wrong: I like people. Just not too many of them in the one place at the same time.)

I was very happy to return to Isla Mujeres. There are no shopping malls on the island. No Macdonalds. No Starbucks. Yes there are tourist shops, but they’re confined to a couple of small Avenidas. It’s a small place. Everyone knows everyone. Case in point: Despite numerous attempts,  I hadn’t managed to get a phone number out of Gladys, my contact for the house I was renting, which was very annoying. She’d asked me to send her an email when I got on the boat and she would meet me at the house. Which I did. She didn’t respond. I also couldn’t remember exactly where the house was, having only been there once.

So I went to a cafe and started fretting about how to get on touch with this lady so I could get the key. It was getting on in the day. When along came the owner of the cafe – Gloria, a rubenesque Italian with a warm demeanor, and asked “you have problema, señorita?” Un poco, I replied. I told her my tale and she threw up her hands, and smiled, proclaiming that Gladys was her friend and she could call her. Fixed.

I was met by Teresa, a tiny Mayan lady who worked for Gladys. She took me up to my casita, introduced me to Jorge – a big black gentle giant with a 1000 wattage smile, who seemed to be the manager of the building. We took care of business and I started nesting.

My new little pad was cuter than I had remembered. (Skip 4 paragraphs if  the details of these sorts of things, don’t interest you)

The room featured sandy-yellow walls with a quaint hand-painted mural of a sun setting over a coconut tree, by the bed which was on a raised platform. There was also a painted bedhead on the wall, which was on theme.

At the foot of the bed, there was a leaf-green colored enclave which housed a small bathroom (toilet paper goes in a wastepaper basket in Mexico – the plumbing just can’t handle it). And also a little open wardrobe for my expansive collection of couture).

Next to the bed, there was a space to hang a hammock, and by the window overlooking the busyish street – a small red plastic Coca Cola table with 3 white plastic chairs, all sporting different beer and soft drink brand stickers. This would serve as the location for my classes.

I had a little fridge and a 20L water bottle with a makeshift pump for my drinking water. A little bookshelf for my pantry, with a color TV on top of it, and a 2 burner gas cooker in my kitchenette. I was fortunate to have both wireless and AC. Very simple. Very sweet. A 5 min walk to the Centro. A 10 min walk to the best beach on the island. I knew I was going to be very happy here.

The next morning, I went for a swim in that perfect aqua blue water and wondered why it was so blue. I later did a bit of googling, and there’s a bunch of theories ranging from the cleanliness and temperature of the water (26-28 degrees), the quality of the sunlight and sand, the number of microscopic organisms that live in the water … then i started reading a scientific article about color vibrations and bent water molecules and my head started hurting so I thought better of questioning why and decided it was much easier to swim in ignorant bliss.

I spoke to Coleena my teacher. Turns out she was moving into my apartment block that week, which would be most convenient. We started lessons the next day. 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

On Tuesday i went snorkeling with Fausto the Fisherman. We met up early and it was just the two of us out there. Soooo many fishes!

It’s a rule that visitors must always wear a life jacket in the Garrafon National Marine Park (clearly the locals are conscious that the loss of a tourist’s life would put an end to a good portion of the island’s livelihood.) But I found it quite limiting and frustrating. I am quite experienced in and on the ocean (for those who don’t know me- I participate in distance ocean swims; I love a body surf; am an experienced diver, etc) So I’m comfortable in the water. Fausto sensed this and let me take off my vest so I could do a bit of skin diving with him. Much better!

We saw reef sharks and trumpet fish and barracuda and groupers and starfish and nudibranchs and a ray and a lion fish. The reef was just so incredibly rich.

Two days later, on the Thursday I went out diving. I did my first wreck dive – the Cañonero C58 C55 (Depth: 33 meters), which was just wicked. It’s a big old WW2 Navy boat about 180 foot long with at least 2 floors and was just thriving with schools of various types of fish. We went through some of the rooms of the ship including what would have been the engine room and the captain’s cabin. The 2nd dive was a drift dive along a reef called Las Pietras Negras, which was a much more shallow and cruisier dive. Apparently this is a great place to spot turtles, but we didn’t see any.

I met two very interesting well travelled sisters, fresh out of college; and their dad on the boat. Dad was doing his Advanced Open Water ticket. The girls had just completed their Dive Masters’ courses in Honduras in a 6 week period because it worked out cheaper than to go diving every day for a couple of weeks. Crazy, huh? One of then had lived there for a while, opening up her own restaurant; while the other had just finished a two year stint in the Peace Corps. At the risk of sounding like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, I find these sorts of young people so inspirational. When I was 23, I was just pissing all my money up against a wall. Imagine what these girls are going to have accomplished by the time they’re 40!

I was absolutely knackered when it came to my lesson. Note to self: No more dives before class. As relaxing as they are, they can also take it out of you. My classes are 1 on 1, so there’s nowhere to hide. It’s been almost 10 years since I studied, so it’s kinda hard work plus the 3pm starts are right about the time my brain stops functioning and I just want to siesta. I know, I know: Cry me a fucking river.

Fri 8 July