Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moonracer Farm, Guatemala, and Caye Caulker with Margaret

Tom and I spent last week being tourists as we enjoyed a visit from our friend Margaret, who lives in Virginia. She flew in on Saturday, and we picked her up at the airport and headed to Cheers for lunch. We had thought about doing something on the way between the airport and home, but we were dealing with some vehicle issues so we decided to come home and get that worked out so we could enjoy the rest of the week and act alike real tourists…

…which we did, starting on Sunday morning with a trip to Ka’ax Tun. Julio served as our guide, and we walked, crawled, scrambled, and climbed through the rocks.

We showed Margaret Maya artifacts, climbed through caves and holes in the rocks, hiked along the edges of ravines, and generally worked up an appetite for the delicious burrito lunch Janeth served us when we came out of the jungle.

On Monday morning, we left for Guatemala. Tom and I had originally thought about trying to do it like our guests on a budget like to do, but we decided that since we live here, it wouldn’t cost us any more to drive ourselves in our personal vehicle, and it would be much cooler, quicker, and more convenient than taking the buses. The three of us crossed the border together, then Margaret and I strolled into Melchor to do a little pre-vacation shopping while Tom got the car across the border. I’d left home with only the shoes on my feet, so of course I had to buy a couple more pairs of shoes. I also wanted to pick up a couple of more bras in a style I’d found there that I liked, so I went back to the store where I’d purchased the first couple and started looking through the pile. The store attendant approached and asked if he could help, and I told him I’d purchased a couple of bras a few weeks ago, and was looking to see if they had any more. He immediately reached into the pile, said “This is what you bought, what size?” and handed completely flabbergasted me a few more in the correct size when I answered. Margaret was still tuning in her Spanish ears and hadn’t followed the whole exchange, but when I completed the purchase and explained what had just happened, we were both laughing. I guess they don’t get too many gringas buying underwear off the street, so they remember what we buy!

Tom got the car across the border and came to pick us up, and we headed into La Maquina for lunch at the restaurant owned by the mother of the guide we usually send with our guests to Tikal. We’d warned Margaret that we didn’t really expect fine dining in Guatemala, but we ordered three different things and all were delicious, exceeding our expectations. We were then back on the road and heading for Tikal, and we made the rest of the trip without incident. We checked in to the Tikal Jungle Lodge, and then spent a couple of very pleasant hours at the pool, swimming, reading, and being thoroughly entertained by a young man who was doing an exceedingly good job of amusing himself in the pool. The Jungle Lodge serves dinner from 7 to 9, and because we had to be up at 3:30AM (yes, 3:30 like in the middle of the night) in order to meet the ranger who would take us to Temple IV to see the sunrise, we were there at 7PM sharp and had another good meal, which really surprised us since the food there hadn’t been much more than mediocre the last time we were there.

We set the alarm for 3:30AM, and when it went off we managed to dress ourselves and get out the door to meet the ranger. We were with another family of the parents and their teenaged son, and the six of us followed the ranger through the very dark park, listening to the howler monkeys and other nighttime jungle noises. The ranger got us to the top of Temple IV, and left just as other groups were arriving.

We watched the sun rise, and this time actually got to see a sunrise.

Even though we live in the jungle, and even though we had done this before, it was still an amazing experience to see the sun come up, hear the jungle waking, and watch the temples appear through the mist as it gets light and the mist burns away. And, when it got light, we realized that the family we’d hiked with in the dark was the family with the very entertaining teenaged son, who turned out to be a 16-year old Colombian named David with two very nice parents.

When the sun was fully up, we spent the rest of the morning wandering through the park and seeing the rest of the site. Tom and I had only ever been there on guided tours before, so this time we saw a few things we hadn’t seen because they’re not on the guides’ track.

We saw some wildlife, including an orange breasted falcon, some coatis, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, a couple of trogans, and a few different hawks. It was a beautiful morning and it would have been a nice walk even if we weren’t in a park full of Maya ruins and amazing wildlife!

We got back to the room, got packed, and got on the road to Flores. We stopped in El Remate at a roadside stand for another good meal, although after skipping breakfast we probably would have been happy even if it was barely edible. We then stopped at the new Mundo Maya mall outside of Flores, which all of our friends and neighbors here who have been said we had to do. Unfortunately, coming from the US, it wasn’t quite as impressive to us as it was to them, although I did manage to find a pair of trainers, which I hadn’t been able to do in Belize – which brought me up to four pairs of shoes for the trip!

We pulled into the island town of Flores in the midafternoon, just as thunder was starting to rumble in the distance. Tom and I had put together a list of potential places to stay, but we had no idea how to find any of them in Flores.

And, the streets in Flores are very narrow and all one way, so we decided to park the car and find a place to stay on foot. We popped in and out of a few hotels, checking on prices and accommodations, and had narrowed the list down. We made it down to the waterfront on the west side of the island, when the distant rumbling thunder suddenly became a little more insistent, and we realized that we were about to get wet. We looked up, and the last hotel on our list was right in front of us, so we went in, and found that it was the nicest and least expensive place we had looked at, right on the lake with a balcony perfect for watching the sunset, and all for just fifty quetzals (about $8US) per person for a room with a private bath and a double and a single bed – perfect for the three of us! We checked in, waited for the rain to slow, and then ran back to move the car so we didn’t have to carry our bags so far. We got unpacked, and by then the rain had stopped, so we went out to wander around the very quaint and scenic town. Tom and I needed a few things for the lodge, so we were in and out of the little shops bargaining and pricing things like tablecloths and chair hammocks. Fortunately Margaret is a seamstress, and she grew up with our dining room table, so she was able to ensure that we got a tablecloth that fit. We also found the perfect chair hammock for our dining room, so we were quite pleased with ourselves since we bargained everything we bought down 25 to 30% from the original prices we were quoted.

We stopped for a drink on the waterfront on the way back to the hotel, and then stopped on the street – I think with everybody else in town – to watch the amazing sunset. We had another excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant right next to the hotel, where we were able to not only watch as the light completely disappeared, but also watch the restaurant’s resident cat drink from a shotglass at the bar. And, we had mojitos for 2 for 1 when the price was already low by our usual standards, so we were happy.

Having started the day at 3:30AM, we were in bed early, so we were up early the next day. After a quick breakfast in Flores – also good, but lacking a few things like tea and cream or milk for coffee – we hit the road and started back to Belize for the second leg of our trip. We got checked out of Guatemala and back into Belize without any problems, and stopped in Benque to give our friend Ian the Kindle that Margaret had kindly transported down for him. We found that he was just about to head into Guatemala to meet his son Alex, so we were glad to have caught him. We then headed to Cheers for lunch (yes, that seems to be turning into our place to eat on the Western Highway!) and on to Bravo, where we were leaving the car for its well child checkup while we vacationed on Caye Caulker. Bravo transported us to the water taxi, and we were on our way to the surf side of our vacation.

We had an uneventful ride out to Caye Caulker, and dragged our stuff down the beach to Ignacio’s Beach Cabins, a very basic but also very inexpensive place to stay that is perfectly adequate for people who aren’t spending much time in the room. We stayed in their “suite,” which is really just a larger cabin than the others that has a futon and some other furniture in a sitting room in addition to the bed – as well as a TV (which we didn’t use) and a small fridge, which was great for keeping ice and cold drinks. We hadn’t been out there in over a year, so we caught up with Reuben, and then headed into town to set up a snorkeling tour for the next day.

We bought our cocktail supplies on the way back, and had our own happy hour before heading off to the Sports Bar for dinner and Wednesday night trivia – which we won! We were QUITE pleased with ourselves about that! After the trivia, the guy who runs the contest sat down with us to see where we were from, and we started talking. We asked where he was from, and he said Quebec. We asked if he was from Montreal, and he said no, a small town outside of Montreal. We said the only small town we knew of outside of Montreal was Sutton, where we would go with our friends Del and Vicky to ski and to visit Del’s mother, since he grew up in Sutton. The guy’s eyes got really big, and he asked if we were serious. We said we were, and he started giving us a little quiz to see if we’d really been there. When we passed, he asked us who our friend was and where she lived, and it turns out that he grew up in Sutton and knows Del’s family. They weren’t best buddies or anything, but still…it’s a small, small world.

The next day we went snorkeling with Tsunami tours. Margaret had never been snorkeling, so she was a little apprehensive, but Tom and I assured her that once she started looking at the world under the water she’d forget to be nervous, and the Tsunami crew was great and fixed her up with a life jacket so she didn’t even have to worry about swimming.

We snorkeled Hol Chan, which is always amazing, stopped at Shark Ray Alley to see the sharks and the rays, as well as some turtles, stopped and watched a manatee, and then snorkeled in the Coral Gardens.

We saw a ton of cool fish and enjoyed conversation with some of the other tourists on the boat. We forgot to put on a second coating of sunscreen after being in the water so Margaret ended up with a pretty bad sunburn, and I burned enough to peel, but other than that it was a totally enjoyable day and Margaret agreed that once your face is in the water, you forget the anxiety and just enjoy looking at things you don’t think of as existing outside of aquariums and books. That night we experienced dinner at Wish Willy’s, which a number of our guests had said was a “must try” – and we agree! It’s at the end of a back street, and you eat at some picnic tables set up in a guy’s yard. Dinner is $18BZ for whatever you get, including drinks. You have choices – chicken, fish, lobster, and whatever else he feels like cooking – and all meals come with rice and sautéed veggies, which were very tasty. We had barbequed lobster tails, and while the Caribbean lobsters are smaller than the Maine ones we always at in the US, dinner included two tails each with a really yummy homemade barbeque sauce. It was pouring rain the next night so we didn’t want to walk all the way to the other end of the island again, but Wish Willy’s is definitely on our list of places to eat the next time we head to Caye Caulker.

We’d planned to take the water taxi to San Pedro to show Margaret what Belize is to a lot of people, but after a whole week of lots of physical activity and a day of too much sun on the water, none of us were moving too quickly on Friday morning. Tom and I headed off to the bakery to pick up our traditional Caye Caulker breakfast of ham/cheese/jalapeno pastries and cinnamon rolls, and left Margaret to make the coffee (the other nice thing about the suite was the coffee maker with supplies!).

When we got back, Margaret didn’t feel much like eating, or like going to San Pedro, so we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon sitting on the cabin’s waterfront deck reading, talking to Reuben, and enjoying the quiet of the south end of the island. We wandered up to the Happy Lobster for ceviche for lunch, and then continued to relax away the rest of the afternoon on the deck. At some point Reuben appeared to inform us that a tropical storm was headed for Belize and that we might want to change our plans for diving on Saturday after seeing Margaret off to the airport, and although we’d checked the news online and seen the weather reports, it was hard to get too wound up about it as we lazed in the sun, looking at the placid Caribbean Sea. However, when we started to think about heading out for dinner around 8PM, we realized that the wind was picking up and we could see lightning and hear thunder coming from the east, and by the time we started out for dinner it was really starting to rain. We went to Rose’s, mostly because it’s at the south end of town and it was raining, and had a lovely and delicious, although expensive by Belize standards, dinner of various seafood entrees, which we shared.

We waited for a break between showers to scurry back to the cabin, and Margaret, who had already purchased a ticket to fly from Caye Caulker to the International Airport at 10:10 the next morning for her 1PM flight, got packed. I was still being a hopeful nincompoop and thinking that maybe the storm would fizzle and we could dive anyway, so I wouldn’t pack…although I then spent a mostly sleepless night, feeling the cabin tremble on its 10-foot legs every time the thunder rumbled or a gust of wind hit it, wondering if it would take any more than a tropical storm force wind to knock the thing off its legs. By morning I had decided that we probably should pack up and head home, and when we watched the Weather Channel in the restaurant while we ate breakfast and they said that the storm had been named Harvey and was heading for Belize, that was definite. The decision was confirmed as we walked back to the cabin along the beach and saw all of the residents pulling their boats onto the beach – and frequently into the streets – and boarding up their windows. We figured that if the residents thought it was worth expending the energy to prepare for a storm, it was probably a good idea for us to get out of their way.

At around 9:30, there was a break in the rain so we grabbed Margaret’s stuff and headed for the airport, which is just a short walk on a path through the mangroves from Ignacio’s. We got there and found that people were still waiting for the 9:10 flight, which was delayed because Tropic Air was about to shut down and was trying to get people off of Ambergris Caye, and they were getting all of those planes filled before heading to Caye Caulker. We tried to get Margaret onto that flight, but it was full, so we then settled in to wait for the 10:10 flight, which was also about an hour late between diversions to where more people needed to be picked up, and being grounded due to gales sweeping through. It was a somewhat tense hour because the guy at the Tropic Air desk was on the phone talking about how soon they were going to stop the island hopper flights, and we were hearing rumors that the International Airport was about to close. The guy at the desk kindly called USAirways so Margaret could talk to them, and they told her that they were still planning to send out their 1PM flight – which was partly reassuring, but partly more stress inducing because Margaret knew she had to get to International in time to make the flight, and it wasn’t at all clear that Tropic was going to be able to get her there…which would have been okay if the USAirways flight wasn’t going, but if it left without Margaret, the next USAirways flight wasn’t until the next Saturday. So, we sat and watched the Weather Channel talk about Irene, which at that point was just a tropical disturbance west of the Caribbean and didn’t even have a name yet, and looked at the unmentioned blob on the radar screen which was about to hit Belize as Tropical Storm Harvey. Tom had to keep telling me to shut up and quit bitching about the Weather Channel (“they are reporting for the US, not the entire world”), and despite the knots in our stomachs, Tom and I kept telling Margaret not to worry because things ALWAYS work out in Belize…and sure enough they did. Margaret’s plane finally took off just about an hour late, and had her to the airport before 11:30 which, although it wasn’t the recommended 2 hours before flight time, was enough time for her to get checked in and get to her plane, which took off early and was one of the last, if not the last, flight to leave before the International Airport closed for part of the afternoon.

Tom and I walked back to the cabin, called to see if the water taxi was still running – it was – and finished throwing our stuff in bags. We went to say goodbye to Reuben, and he offered us a ride “uptown” in his golfcart, since they were going out for some supplies needed for waiting for the storm. We found that the Caye Caulker Water Taxi had shut down, but the San Pedro Express was still running – which was fine with us, since we try not to use CCWT anyway since they stole our camera last time we used them. So, we got our tickets, and after a short wait we were loaded on the boat, which we were told was probably the last one out. We had a smooth if slightly breezy ride back to Belize City, and didn’t see a drop of rain. By the time we got to Belize City, the sun was actually trying to shine. We called Hiram, the service manager at Bravo, and he picked us up in our truck. We took him back to his house in Belize City, and sat for a few minutes filling out the paperwork and paying for the service – which is basically priceless with the type of customer service Bravo provides.

We then set off for home, wondering what all the big deal was about the storm since we didn’t think it was even going to hit Caye Caulker or Belize City. But, about 10 minutes outside of Belmopan, we ran into it, and even though it was just a tropical storm blowing itself out by that point, the rain was hard enough and the wind was strong enough that we couldn’t see well enough to drive and pulled off the road for a little while. Once we had a little bit of visibility again we headed into Belmopan, which we found completely flooded. We drove through the stream that’s usually Forest Drive to our favorite Chinese Fry Chicken place, and ate fried chicken and French fries until the worst of the storm passed and the water level went down a bit. We then continued home, and found that while it had rained a bit closer to San Ignacio, what we saw was probably the worst of the storm that far inland, and the hard rain and high winds were very localized. Tropical Storm Harvey was basically a non-event, even with a direct hit on Belize, and it did nothing more than give us a little drama for the end of our vacation.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slow tourist season = Vacation time

Since this is the slow season for us, Marge and I decided it was a good time to take some vacation. Julio has a brother, Poncho, that works down in Placencia, so Julio’s family and I went down for a visit.

Julio’s wife, Janeth, had never been to Placencia and the kids had never really played in the ocean so this was a big adventure. Traveling down in our little Isuzu DMax was a little tight but we managed to get Julio, Janeth, their five kids, and I all inside for the ride down and back. Janeth got to ride shotgun for the entire trip and Julio and I took turns sitting in the back with 4 of the 5 kids, Melvor being one of them – he was small enough to sit on someone’s lap most of the way.

We got two rooms at a local hotel, one for Julio, Janeth and Melvor, and one room for Eric and me. The other two boys stayed with Pancho’s son and Odaly stayed with a cousin.

The first evening I wanted Julio and Janeth to have a nice quiet dinner with no kids since this was the first time they had ever had a chance to eat alone since Eric was born over 14 years ago.
I ventured out with the five kids plus two extras from Pancho’s family to Wendy’s, a nice family restaurant right in Placencia. We had plans to go bowling up in Maya Beach after dinner; however, BWEL was late in filling the butane tanks at the restaurant so dinner took almost 2 hours and we got out too late to bowl.

After dinner we all went back to the hotel to play some dominoes and such, then Pancho took all but Eric, Melvor and I back to his place. The three of us then prepared to go for a night walk on the beach when Julio and Janeth returned. We chatted with them and found out that they couldn’t get dinner at the restaurant that I suggested due to an electrical outage in the middle of the town so they walked all the way north on the sidewalk, then back to the southern point, before finding a nice quiet little place for dinner. So, for all the plans I had in my head for the first night, I had to just chalk it all up to a “Belizean night” – change plans as needed and be flexible! Eric, Melvor and I went for our walk and enjoyed the lapping waves on the shore; and I got to practice talking with Melvor (four years old) in Spanish the entire way.

Eric and I settled in for the night in our room and Eric was happy to be sleeping with A/C (for the first time, I think). He set it to full cold and around 2am I had to turn it down a bit since the two of us were freezing.

The next day we spent doing a bit of fishing, both for the boys

and the girls.
Melvor was fascinated with the starfish he found and actually brought it into the house to show us!

We then spent a couple of hours in the pool, me playing with Melvor in the shallow end, and also hiding coins in the pool for the boys to find.

Our second night we all went out to dinner together, happy and tired after a long day playing in the water and in the sun.

On our way out of town, we made a mandatory stop at Tutti Fruttis just in time, the day before they closed for their own one month vacation! Almost everyone had two cones since the ice cream there is just so good.