Monday, May 14, 2012

send me on my way

I returned to San Pedro with the terribly brilliant idea of settling down for awhile. There was delicious veggie food, cheap accommodation, and most importantly, amazing people to spend endless hours wasting time with. The town itself invites the laid back backpacker to hang out, party, and connect with the community and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else for the moment. So I got a private room and shower, bought groceries, and settled in immediately.
I can’t say I did a lot of terribly productive things during this time. Sure I wrote and exercised a bit, but I spent the vast majority of my time relaxing. Purely enjoying the simple things in life is one of my favorite activities and San Pedro is most definitely a place to do that. And best of all: I was surrounded by incredible, unique, creative, and fun people to be lazy with There were music festivals, movie marathons, and sunrise hikes. But my favorite activity was the regular community dinners we shared. While I didn’t actually sleep at Yo Mama’s Casa, I did make that hostel my home. Collectively we’d put in money or vegetables and then spend a few hours whipping up a delicious home cook meal for 20 people. That was no easy task. Usually fueled by smoke and drink, we somehow managed pulling off unique gourmet meals about 4 nights a week, and I never stopped being impressed. Of course when the night came, we would eventually go out for 10 q drinks ($1.50) and random debauchery at the same few bars we visited almost nightly. It was fun to say the least. Eventually I got burnt out smoking and drinking everyday and had to escape for some legitimate detoxing. Plus I had card/bank issues and the intention of meeting up with others for travel. But in reality, I knew it had to end at some point. And I hate being the last to leave the party and so I exited semi-gracefully to Xela. Pronounced “Shaey-la” and located high in the mountains only a few hours away, Xela provided the perfect detox setting. I immediately went to Spanish school 5 hours a day and moved in with a local family. I stopped smoking and drinking entirely, wrote furiously, and began soaking in all the culture I admittedly missed in San Pedro. I felt great. I started exercising regularly again and even went running with the 72 year old grandpa I adored. I also joined a women’s only gym and I must say that was quite the self esteem boost. I showed up late the first day to a class of 6 and while I was concerned I wouldn’t be fast to follow, I quickly learned that I had a massive edge on 40 something overweight Guatemalan ladies. Besides their clumsy coordination and general lack of athletic abilities, I had a natural energy all their tortilla eating must have zapped. I thoroughly enjoyed myself to say the least.
During this time I did notice a vast improvement in my Spanish as my teachers diligently berated the various types of past tense into me. But I probably learned the most from the families I lived with, one of which I truly adored and loved. I went to two schools, one for each week and you can read about my experience at one here. Yet the most rewarding experiences are always people related and that’s why my first family with 6 kids (a mix of cousins really), an old grandpa who runs, and a mother with the loudest, most genuine laugh was my favorite experience. I truly settled in cooking together, sharing recipes, birthday celebrations, dancing and singing, and Semana Santa. This holiday is massive in Latin cultures, but even more so in Antigua, Xela’s neighbor. Still, being the second largest city in the country, there were plenty of processions, alfombras, and street food.
For hours and days on end, men and women somberly walk in a procession of up to several hundred people each, extremely slowly, over alfombras. These brightly colored carpets are made by hand hours before the procession tramples over them, destroying this unique art, similar to mandalas. The people carry large, intricate structures dedicated to Jesus and Mary and it can take up to 70 people to carry each one. These processions block streets making it impossible to get around the city but invite a carnival like atmosphere where families for all over the country gather to celebrate ‘Holy Week’, with heaps of cotton candy and Jesus trinkets (obviously). Truly an interesting and once in a lifetime experience, mostly because I never need to go through that again. But healthy living simply isn’t for me long term; it’s much too boring. After just 2 weeks I was ready to get back off the wagon. My friend from home, travel companion, and work colleague Justin joined me in Xela for a few days of focused work and hiking. He brought his brute caveman friend, Captain Strangelove, with him, someone I quite quickly loved to hate. I had my good friend Kate from San Pedro come and join us and together we climbed the highest point in Central America. Climbing the volcano Tajumulco was something Sam had inspired me to do and I couldn’t leave Guatemala without conquering this 4222 m feat. While I have lived in higher altitudes, continuously walking uphill with a large pack stuffed with camping supplies is not an easy task. The crisp windy air gets fiercely cold and the altitude cuts your breathing ability in half, more so if you’re a smoker (like I have so unfortunately chosen to be). We were not alone though; we trekked with a large group of 30 people with a fantastic non-profit organization called Quetzaltrekkers. They have an amazing reputation and based on my personal experience I’d highly recommend any of their treks to anyone traveling through Guatemala or Nicaragua. At some sweaty point we made it to the base camp, just below the two summits. That evening we hiked the lower one to witness a sunset that wasn’t really impressive with so many clouds. No matter, we were still nearly on top of the world and it felt damn good. After not much sleep in our freezing tents, we woke up before 4 am to climb the final ascent to the highest point in Central America. It wasn’t very far, but we were sick, exhausted, and constantly catching our breath. Kate in particular had been properly sick for awhile and I’m impressed I didn’t have to carry her up. But the struggle was well worth it.
An array of colors slowly emerged in the distance and the sky began to light up vibrantly. Luckily, we barely made it to the top by sunrise and I’m so grateful we did because it was one of those epic sunrises I will never forget. The sky was clear except for the sea of clouds we were perched above. Yet the chain of volcanoes throughout Guatemala was still visible poking through and I literally left as if I were sitting on top of the world. It was one of those perfect mornings that was made even better by the fierce struggle it took to get there. The decent felt more like a cake walk compared to the previous day and we nearly ran down the volcano. Beer was much needed when our lungs could open up and I spent the next couple of days recuperating and working in our new hive team: me, Justin, and Captain Strangelove. I was sad to say goodbye to Kate as her path directed her back home. The boys wanted to stop in Sumac Champey for a few days and since I had already seen it, I decided one quick return to San Pedro would be best before I said goodbye to Guatemala. So I returned for a week of reunions only to discover that most of my good friends had already left. Plenty were still there but the town felt like a Twilight Zone replica of the place I loved so dearly before. The rainy season was setting in, tourism eased off, and I discovered the main reason I loved this place so much was because of the people in it. This goodbye was easier as it was clearly time to move onto the next adventure in my journey. So I met back up with the World Travel Buzz team hive in Rio Dulce, a small not so touristy city on the Caribbean coast. We worked, visited an orphanage with 300 kids, and met up with some crazy girls the boys had acquired whilst in Sumac Champey. Altogether we took the boat cruise down river towards Livingston, the truly Belizean border island town used for jumping in and out of Guatemala. We didn’t stay in Livingston though, instead opting for Finca Tatin, a gorgeous hidden hotel nestled in the jungle and right on the river. Nature enveloped this place and with as many hammocks as there were, it was virtually impossible not to relax there. Dinners were served family style and the 8 of us loudly took over what was supposed to be a quiet getaway. Not surprisingly, our last night included nude night swimming, super dragons (don’t ask), and heaps of rum. The girls that joined us were just the kind of girls I like: down to party and get weird.
During the day we remained active: kayaking a few hours down river, hiking several hours back through the sweltering jungle, and swinging into the river to cool off. The atmosphere was serene with lush tropical forest and a calm wide river. Boats came by every so often, but not near our hotel because it was down a side river which made it more peaceful and secluded. We were soon on the go again towards Honduras which was really close but inconvenient with public transportation. Two boats and three buses in one day and we made it to the hostel brewery located in the highlands of Honduras. D & D is truly off the map; unless of course you travel with a Lonely Planet. Nonetheless, this hidden gem remains a growing trend among backpackers and locals alike because it is, by far, the best freshly brewed beer in Central America. From porter to apricot ale, they have it all and for a mere $2 a pint. If beer really isn’t your thing though, they have a pool, hammock, fire, and great food. After a few days there chilling out, exploring the natural beauty of the area, and getting drunk on yummy beer at night, it was time to move on. The Bay Islands were next on our itinerary and we were eager to get there. It’s hard to begin to explain the shenanigans that is Utila, so I won’t and will save it for the next installment. But I’ll leave you wondering about what kind of damage I could do with 50 cent tequila. I know, I know, bad idea. But I’ll never learn. And that's what makes my adventures so entertaining.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

caring is creepy

Thick lush jungle, crystal blue waterfalls, playful monkeys, ancient ruins, cobblestone streets, gourmet food, towering heights, colorful markets, and endless opportunities for fun and debauchery. Guatemala has been more than I ever could have hoped for.

In my last blog I mentioned that I had met someone and we decided to travel a bit together. I had never really done this before (romantically) and felt both nervous and excited. Traveling with someone is far more intense than living together: you literally spend every moment in sync. You know everything they eat, when they fall asleep, and when they go to the bathroom. (And if you’re with a French Canadian, you know the size, smell, and color of said bathroom goings.) Traveling with anyone, romantic or not, can be difficult but luckily for me, everything about our journey together was easy.

A long time ago I decided not to write about the men I meet or the relationships I have just because it opens Pandora’s Box. The reality is I couldn’t write this blog without mentioning Sam and who he is to me. So let’s ignore the ‘we’ as nothing more than the reality of traveling with someone, no matter who they are. This is a story about my journey through Guatemala.

The first stop was in Flores to visit Tikal, the most beautiful and fascinating Mayan ruins I’ve seen. The cool part was that only a tiny fraction of the ruins have been uncovered, which means under the thick grassy hills and through the dense jungle forest you can stumble upon all sorts of ancient architecture. And considering the spread of the park was beyond a day’s walk, not including the vast protected areas, there was a lot to stumble upon.

Rather than seeing it all, which you can’t, we spent way too much of our time playing with monkeys and chasing other animals. It was nice to be with someone who wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do, which was get off the beaten path, climb a hidden ruin, and eat a jenky can of beans and bread lunch “talking” to the nearby howler monkeys and trying to get them to growl. (Which we did using an old recorded video of howlers and it was AMAZING!)

From here someone suggested a stop at Semuc Champey and it only took one postcard to persuade us that we had to change our plans. One of the important traits in a travel partner for me is someone who can truly go with the flow. Someone who is open to suggestions and understands a change of heart or weather determining where you book your next ticket. Sam is one of these people and that’s one reason we traveled so well together.

So then we convinced a couple of friends to join us to Sumac Champey, a gorgeous series of pools and waterfalls nestled in the mountainous jungle. It was fucking beautiful to say the very least. There were also caves to go splashing and swimming through with only candles, a river to swing into and tube down, and then a sweet hike up to an even sweeter viewpoint. But it wasn’t the waterfalls that kept us in town for 6 days; it was Zephyr Lodge, the chill party hostel we adored.

Despite our makeshift shack we called our room (no walls and located above the workroom) we kept extending our stay every day based on the scenery, hangovers, and good company. There was so much to explore and see here; simply enjoying the incredible view from the open air hot shower was a favored activity. We had a fun group of people there and had some good times partying. Too good because I woke up with cat whiskers one day and no recollection of receiving them, despite there being pictures of my clearly lucid face. (Thanks again Sam.)

From here I learned about a place called Earth Lodge, an avocado farm nestled into the hills 20 minutes above Antigua, our anticipated next stop. ‘Avocado’ was the only word either one of us needed to be convinced to make a pit stop, and again we stayed longer than anticipated. It was quiet, calm, and beautiful. We stopped drinking, went to bed early, and became lazy with our days, but loved every minute.

In Antigua we stepped back into tourists’ roles strolling the cobblestone streets, trying all the food we could, and sampling the local brew. We even did a chocolate making class where we learned the whole history, made traditional cocoa using both Mayan and European methods, and then made our own variety of gourmet chocolates. Super delicious and fun! We also visited an organic macadamia nut farm and climbed a volcano. I’m not usually one for cramming lots of tours or activities into a small space but I love that Sam encouraged me to see and do as much as I could here being that my lazy ass probably misses out on so much when left to my own devices.

Eventually we made our way to San Pedro de la Laguna, a small traveler’s paradise located on Lake Atitlan. It had been our long term goal of reaching this place and hanging out for as long as possible. Stories of this chilled out community of backpackers had convinced us this would be a place we would like, and we were not disappointed.

San Pedro is so small you can walk everywhere you’d possibly want to go, even though most of it is concentrated into a few alleys lined with delicious restaurants, fun bars, and tiendas for everything else. This area had clearly been developed by travelers who were ready to stay put for awhile and wanted a bit of their homes with them. You can find anything from falafel to Thai curries, and all of it is reasonably priced as well. To be honest, Guatemala was not as cheap as I had planned on and it was bothering me, until I reached San Pedro. Finally a place I could afford to eat out well and drink everyday! Even the accommodation was a tiny fraction from what we were paying before.

To make this place even more paradise, we already knew a few people in town and automatically joined in the community of people who were staying long term. I knew I would become one of them automatically. At this point I knew Sam was leaving soon, and it seemed obvious I would end up staying here longer than planned so I planned on awhile.

While Sam was there we remained active: kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, going to markets, and constantly discovering delicious food. But eventually his time had come and he had to book it back to Cancun fast in order to catch his flight home. But the last thing he wanted to do before he left was climb the largest volcano in all of Central America, located just outside of Xela which was only 3 hours away. But timing is everything and somehow we screwed up our one and only chance to climb the volcano. If there is anyone as good about procrastinating as me, it’s possibly Sam, so naturally as a team we sometimes suck.

In the end, we spent our last day together enjoying the simple beauty of a hot spring finished by an evening of cooking and drinking wine. I am extremely grateful for all of the incredible adventures we shared. I have heaps of wonderful memories and pictures to take with me and that’s good enough. After the final farewell, I scoped out some Spanish schools as I knew I’d eventually come back to detox. Then I quickly returned to San Pedro to settle into my next favorite community and home for the following month. And what a truly amazing home and family it turned out to be.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

things i cannot recall

Considering how long it’s been since I last updated the world about what I’m doing, I’m sure a summary of most things will be sufficient. I’ll save the ramblings for unnecessary tangents on rooftops. You’ll see why later.

I last left off where I was traveling through the Yucatan Peninsula and loving being back in the comfortable life of a traveler. But early on I found a hostel I wanted to work at so just after the New Year I returned to Cancun for over a month of random debauchery.

I knew we would be family immediately; not sure why or how, but my co-workers at Ka’beh hostel were better than I ever could have hoped for. First and foremost, there is Joe, and there is no one else on this planet like her. She is energetic, loud, outgoing, and totally unforgettable. There is no way to describe her completely here, but stories of Joe will travel with me throughout my life.

Then there was my insta-gay husband from Kosovo and we immediately clicked as we smoked our first bowl together straight away. I could talk to him forever and we connected in so many ways, especially spiritually. He is one of the most interesting people I’ve met and I was lucky to have him as my confidant and guide.

There was also the Aussie hippie who was managing and basically running the place and keeping it all together. He was the one who actually convinced me to come back for work and he continued to make me laugh throughout my stay. The last worker was a local girl who didn’t sleep at the hostel, but worked most of the awful 7 am shifts and cleaned better than all of us combined. The final piece of the puzzle was a French-Canadian who had recently invested some money in the place and came down to learn to scuba and relax and enjoy life for a little while. Altogether we were the core Ka’beh family, and altogether we were a bunch of loud, ridiculous, but hilarious drunks.

Our staff was small but so was our hostel. Sixteen official beds to rent out, then some hammocks, and even our beds in the staff room of four went up for grabs plenty of nights. The hostel didn’t just feel like home, it used to be one. Converted only a few years ago, Ka’beh quickly became known in Lonely Planet as a party hostel, and lives up to the title to this day.

Every night of the week we had activities planned including free bbq and beer pong. My favorite was open bar on Fridays when for just 20 pesos, or roughly $1.50, you could drink as much liquor as you wanted for a few hours. Now that’s some good messy fun!

My first shift was during tequila jenga and needless to say, I learned pretty early on that there was a whole lot of leeway in the term “work” around there. After staying up till dawn and getting wild and weird in hammocks, I realized I was going to love working there.

As Cancun is a major party destination it was our job to facilitate getting our guests out to the bars and have loads of fun. Not always up for a night of binge drinking, I still had to get others amped to drink and party any night of the week. And it never mattered if it were Saturday or Wednesday, Cancun was partying hard.

But that fact rarely affected me; in fact plenty of days I never left past the hostel walls. I didn’t need to, I had everything I needed right there: stocked food and kitchen, internet, and most of all, people I loved being with. I could waste time so easily at Ka’beh because I was genuinely enjoying every moment I lived in. Even though I was technically working, it was so laid back and relaxed I could never take it too seriously.

Most often we would visit the roof. A jenky ladder led to an even jenkier roof top, we escaped multiple times a day to talk, relax, and smoke a bowl. We would invite the guests we really liked up to the roof as it was kind of a random but amazing spot. I also slept/passed out on that roof. A couple of times. Naked. Whoops. (Sorry, it’s just that kind of roof.)

More than just the hostel workers, our Ka’beh family was extended into our guests that stayed for awhile and really bonded with us. It’s surprising how close people become when they’re not working or studying and instead only enjoying life. It becomes easier to meet people, connect, and bond. Especially if you’re drinking every night together.

So many amazing people came and left Ka’beh that touched my heart and made me happy. I wish I could tell stories about them all, but I can’t, so I’ll pick just one: Samuel. He is a French Canadian chef and it wasn’t long before we started hooking up. One thing lead to another and it turns out he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He stayed for over two weeks before he had to make a move, but promised to come back soon. When he did, he brought me two pairs of feather earrings, both beautiful and both totally my style. It was around then I really realized this guy might be different. Before he left for good, we talked about wanting to travel together. I wasn’t ready to leave when he was so I planned to meet him in less than a week in Guatemala and we would travel together there. But that’s a whole other blog you’ll have to wait for.

Sam was definitely part of the Ka’beh family though, an intricate part that cooked many delicious meals. In fact, we all cooked amazing meals together and that fact alone is what makes us family. Everyday someone would cook something for everyone. It wasn’t planned who, when, or what, but eventually someone would get hungry or feel like cooking and groceries were already bought for us ready to be prepared. No one else was vegetarian but no one minded at all eating veg most the time, considering how much cheaper it is. I loved creating this community and having a time where we all came together and ate. Not around one big table literally, but together with conversation.

Since I worked at Ka’beh so long and drank so much, there are obviously many crazy stories to share. But I can’t (and won’t) share them all so instead I’ll just focus on a few. The craziest ones always involve Joe, and her birthday was no exception. It started off slowly with a game of King’s Cup and somehow turned into us making human pyramids at the bars and then stripping to our undies and running into the ocean at sunrise. It was one of those magical seamless nights, the only bad thing was that someone jacked my purse while we were swimming. Not really surprised though.

The best part of the whole night was the bus ride back, most of which I don’t remember. What I do recall is Joe staying in her drawers and stopping/directing traffic so we could cross the 8 car lanes. Mind you, it was a Thursday morning around 8 or 9 am and everyone else around was going to work. Joe has no shame but instead a huge heart that wants to keep her friends safe.

Even though Cancun had a plethora of large clubs to go out to all night, most heavy drinking nights were spent at home in Ka’beh. It was incredibly cheaper to get pissed back at ours and we had the most fun just being our weird drunk selves. It was a giant blur of spanking with paddles, dressing up in ridiculous outfits, and death defying hammock tricks. The most infamous night of course was Australia Day, when hammock sutra was invented. There were only 5 hammocks, but there were over a dozen people in them, one of which was performing. Joe literally gave lap dances to everyone in the hammocks, carefully balancing herself above everyone’s crotches. Eventually it became too much and a couple of hammocks pulled out from the wall and asses went down on the ground hard. Just another day at Ka’beh.

Naturally with this much drinking, people are bound to pass out, anywhere and anytime. (Joe regularly chose to sleep on the main couch, usually close to naked.) But if someone assed out during their “work”, they were bound to get taken advantage of. It started off innocently enough with pictures of the victim passed out with a sign on them saying “hard at work”. (Hard at work quickly became the slogan for our hostel.) Near everyone got a photo with the sign, but sometimes we felt like being artistic with the victim, namely Joe. One night there was a sombrero, empty bottles, and a condom filled with milk all over poor Joe (who is genuinely a hard worker). But that’s what you get for drunkenly passing out while doing math for your checkout at 2 am. Or for living at Ka’beh.

I was more than lucky to have this place and time of my life; I loved everyone who was apart of it. The flow and tempo of life was slow and steady but much to my liking. From time to time we were challenged though with the reality of work. If there was a flash storm (and there were a few) we had to get soaked in the rain as we scooped buckets of water out of the alley that threatened to flood our kitchen and into the garden further away. We ran out of water. More than once. And we were lucky if the hot water ever worked. Don’t even get me started with the laundry machine. But overall it was mellow light housecleaning work and checking people in and getting them situation. We had to keep the place clean and everyone happy, that was most important. But in general someone just had to be around 24/7 so that meant someone always had the 11pm-7 am night shift. That was rough.

You were allowed to sleep a bit but I rarely did. And after a few days you get properly worn out and ready to sleep all day. The whole schedule of partying, sleeping, and working throws your body through a loop. I definitely adored every minute I had at Ka'beh and could have stayed longer, but it was my time to leave when I did (even though I did so sobbing). I had Sam to catch up with and was eager to start traveling again, this time in Guatemala.