Monday, May 30, 2005

Wipe out

2 days ago I went for a mountain-bike tour through the hills and countryside around San Cristobal. It was nice to see a whole different view of life here away from busy markets and noisy streets. However, about and hour into the ride I had a spectacular wipe out going down a steep, narrow bit of trail. After the dust settled it became apparent to me that in addition to smacking my head and various cuts and scrapes I had done something quite serious to both my arms. They started to swell up just below the elbow and I had no strength to hold any weight in either arm. It was clear to me that I couldn't ride any further and I suspected that I had broken both arms.

Fortunately, the leader of our little group had a cell-phone and was able to call his partner to come pick me up in a car, and I spent the rest of the afternoon, with her help, visiting various medical offices in San Cristobal getting x-rays and being checked out by a doctor (total cost $90). The doctor told me that there was no fracture in either arm, but that the tendons were torn, so I am on a regimen of icing both arms and anti-inflammatory medication.

Once I was back at the hostal on my own, my predicament started to sink in - I couldn't move either arm above chest height, nor could I lift more than about a cup of water. I managed to get my t-shirt off after about 15 minutes of bending over and wriggling and and succeeded in showering and putting on some clean clothes but I wasnt sure if I was going to be able to eat anything on my own though. I could only lie on my back in bed and even then I couldnt pull the covers up any higher than chest height.

Things have been slowly improving since then. The first night I was able to get my hand close enough to my mouth that I could eat the first half of a slice of pizza and I drank a beer using a straw. The second day I was able to somewhat awkardly feed myself yogurt and granola with a spoon and to weakly brush my teeth. This morning I could scratch my head for the first time and drink from a mug of coffee without looking too peculiar and I'm hoping to eat a meal with a knife and fork by this evening.

My trip down to Guatmala is on hold for another day or two but I hope to still squeeze it in.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How strange to be cold and wet

For 6 weeks I havent seen more than a drop or two of rain and the thought of wearing long sleeves for warmth has been unimaginable. I have been wearing t-shirts, shorts and sandles exclusively.

So what an abrupt change to be in San Cristóbal in the hills of Chiapas after a rainy 5 hour drive up from the steaming heat of Palenque.

I plan to spend a few days here exploring and relaxing before heading south into Guatamala again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More Temples

Katie headed back to Boston and I hopped on a bus going north to Mexico. The Mayan temples in Tulum are very photogenic but not in the same league as Tikal.

I was a bit disappointed by the beach paradise in Tulum - it was quiet when I was there and the cabanas were expensive, dirty and hot (I'll take any 2). Might have been a different experience in a group, but I didn't find the other travellers there particularly open. So onwards....

A quick stop in friendly Valladolid, and a swim in some of its ceynotes - caves containing underground pools, some of which have roots from trees above reaching down 50' to sip at the water.

The thing I liked the most about Chichen Itza was the detail of the carvings on the buildings that are still evident. Unfortunately, you cant explore the ruins as freely as at other sites. There is an observatory here that is aligned to the rise of certain stars at particular times of the year - I'm curious to find out more about the astronomical insights of the Mayans, but that seemed beyond what most of the local guides could provide.

Palenque has more of the feel of Tikal, surrounded by jungle, and I enjoyed clambering around inside the tunnels and rooms inside the structures trying to imagine the flow of life along the same stones 1500 years ago.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Tubing in the dark

After our visit to Tikal we spent another day chilling in El Remate and then headed back to San Ignacio and after some deliberation booked a tour for the following day to go cave tubing on the Caves Branch River. This was pretty expensive (partly because it involves an 1.5 hour drive from San Ignacio) but we couldn't find enough information to confidently attempt the trip on our own (the last 7km or so of unpaved road to the park entrance would be the issue - you might be able to hitch).

We followed our guide, Bernard, walking up-river through the jungle for about 45 minutes carrying our inner tubes. Along the way we spotted a big, bright green snake sunning itself on a rock by the river (eyelash viper?) and several times our trail was crossed by a highway of leaf-cutter ants single-mindedly transporting their payload from one part of the jungle to another.

We also tried a yellow cashew fruit and learned about how toxic cashew nuts are (related to the poisonwood tree) until they are carefully roasted.

We ended up at a fabulous turquoise pool that disappeared on one side into a dark cave-mouth in the limestone. After the obligatory leap from a rock outcropping into the pool, we launched ourselves on our inner-tubes and floated lazily into the darkness.... The river was still 20' deep in most places in spite of it being the end of the dry season. As the light from the entrance faded, our eyes gradually adjusted and for a long time as we drifted we could still make out the pale arch of the cave wall beside us.

The Maya regarded the caves as entrances to the underwold, and would visit them for ceremonial purposes. We saw carvings in rock formations with our headlamps and pottery remains from some of their sites amongst the stalagmites. Most of the time we kept the lights off and paddled in the dark, with the echoes of our splashes filling the void around us, and the occasional floating leaf brushing against a leg or arm causing a moment's alarm. The darkness was punctuated by openings to the jungle in places where the river had drilled out through the limestone in places.

We passed an underground waterfall, and bumped our way over shallow spots where the water was much faster. After the last cave, we span and bobbed our way down-river, warming up in the hot sun until we arrived back at the start of our hike and enjoyed our packed lunch while the guides taunted each other playing dominos.

Stairmaster in the jungle

Our base in Guatamela was El Remate, a wonderfully sleepy lakefront town that seems to only just be surfacing on the Lonely Planet radar - possibly because the bus transportation to Flores in more straightforward. This small village has only a few hotels, many of which face right onto the lake. We stayed at the Sun Breeze Hotel where we were taken care of by the wonderfully tranquilo Humberto and his wife Saida. Our room looked right onto the lake in addition to many grazing cows, horses, roosters, dogs, small children playing, women doing laundry, etc. Our first afternoon we stumbled across a picture perfect palapa - a little thached hut that jutted out over the water. This was an ideal place to take a swim, read, or just take in the scenery....all of which we did.

Day 2 in Guatamala began at 5am with a minibus ride into the Tikal National Park. This was to avoid the hordes that arrive by the busload on day-trips from further afield later in the morning. We were given 8 hours to explore before the return ride home, which we were initially concerned would be vastly longer than we wanted, but it turned out to be about as long as we needed.

The temples are quite breath-taking, rising out of forest and surrounded by jungle as far as the eye can see. For 1000 years they were left abandoned and became completely overgrown, turning into oddly shaped hills with the roots of enormous trees gripping the old stones. One is still free to clamber around over much of the temple complex, although it's quite a workout staggering up and down all those steps. As Katie remarked, such big steps for such small people....

There are a few areas that were closed for public safety after a couple of tourists died after falling down some steps a few years ago. On some of the temples you can certainly see how that could happen - Temple V (above) in particular has extremely steep sides and I was very careful walking around at the top. The lawyers wouldn't allow you anywhere near these things in the U.S., but that's just another reminder of why I'm travelling.

Taking the bus Belizian style

After leaving Caye Caulker on the Wednesday morning water taxi, we headed west to San Ignacio.

This required a three hour bus ride in the middle of an extremely hot afternoon. In all my travels so far in Central America, the local busrides have been very efficient and businesslike (in spite of the grime), but this was Belize and things seemed to work quite differently here. To start with the conductor of our bus singled us out amongst the passengers sitting waiting to board and started sweet talking us and offering all sorts of advice about where to stay in San Ignacio and what to do when we got there and would we like to buy some weed, etc. When the bus rolled up he hussled us along and extolled us to give him our backpacks to load in the back of the bus - ok, ok but why all the fuss? - and then he asked for a tip!! Meanwhile everyone else was climbing over each other trying to board at the front of the bus and grab a seat. When Katie and I got on (almost last) there were about 20 people standing in the aisle without seats and the conductor was still at the back of the bus saving us seats, waving us to press pass the angry standing passengers and sit down, and at this point the purpose of the tip became evident. However, it was a very awkward moment. But we were happy for those seats as the bus stopped every hundred yards to pick up or drop off passengers for the next few hours.

In San Ignacio we were discouraged enough by reports of low water-levels in the Pine Mountain Ridge area to skip the hike to the waterfalls that we had been thinking of doing the next day. So instead, we packed up and headed for Guatamala.

From the start, Guatamala was a drastically different experience than Belize. Within 2 minutes of entering Guatamala we were in the immigration back-office negotiating a bribe to enter the country. The dilemma: there is no fee to enter Guatamala from Belize but it appears to be standard practice to be asked for one. While I negotiated in butchered spanish with the guards, Katie was just worried about being in trouble. Since they still had our passports the only negotiating leverage I had was their discomfort at having their bluff called and their complete lack of evidence for their imaginary fee (elsewhere I have seen the entrance and departure fees posted somewhere in the office) . We each repeated our side of the debate several times while another immigration officer sat nearby eating a coconut, and finally to end the standoff we settled on a fee of $1 (down from the first request of $10).

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Even hotter and sweatier in Caye Caulker

I met Katie at the airport and we stayed our first night at the very welcoming D'Nest Inn just outside of Belize City, where we joined our hosts for a birthday celebration and plenty of discussion about family, politics and Belize.

In the morning, we caught the water taxi to Caye Caulker and plodded around the island searching for a hotel that wasnt full or extortionate. Our first night we ended up at Tom's which was cheap but basic. The fan worked (although the walls were stained with a mysterious orange liquid that had obviously reached the wall at some velocity at the level of the ceiling fan). My alarm clock read 98' at the end of day and we showered and lay motionless sweating until we drifted fitfully off to sleep. The next day we moved into the Maxhapan Cabanas with air conditioning.....ahhh.

From Caye Caulker we had hoped to do a 3 day sailing cruise down to Placencia but the normal Tuesday depature had been cancelled due to national holiday on Monday, so we opted for a full day sailing and snorkeling trip to the reef, where we swam with sting rays and nurse sharks and thousands of fish.

Belize City

I arrived in Punta Gorda after a blistering speedboat ride from Puerto Barrios and was welcomed by an immigration official in warm Belizian english, which was a bit of a culture shock after a month of struggling with Spanish.

Unfortunately, I discovered that recent political unrest in Belize (protests against government corruption and mismanagement) had included the telephone and water workers going on strike, and the electricity supply being disrupted. As a result, Punta Gorda had no running water and was expecting rolling blackouts during the night. I considered the prospect of trying to sleep without a shower or a fan in the 90' heat and then enquired about means of getting out of town.

Apparently the last bus has left, but there was still a flight to Placencia which at first I was told was BZ $30 but it turned out to be US $30. In any case, it was well worth it as I got to sit in the right seat next to the pilot of the Cessna Caravan and see the incredibly short landing at Placencia from up close.

It was then that I was informed that the water shortage was a problem nationwide, but fortunately the hostel I stayed at in Placencia had a rainwater storage tank that supplied one of their showers which was still working.

The next morning I took a quick trip up to Mango Creek in a water taxi and then a 4 hour sweaty busride to Belize City.