Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dichotomy of Wealth

The stark differences in the perceptions and viewpoints of those who "have" and those who "have not" never cease to surprise, nor amaze me. While most people in the world are aware of the saying that 'money cannot buy happiness', rarely do people really get a chance to truly test the theory. Either they already have it, in which case they are now in the midst of a lifestyle that requires the perpetual addition of more money - or - they don't, in which case they will probably never have enough and in most situations have given up trying to hold on to the illusion that they ever will.

Our daily morning procession to the Eco Escuela De Español, San Andres

In either case, my travels across the globe have enabled me to see firsthand the differences in peoples lives in relation to their wealth. Surely enough, there is no correlation between one's bank account and their capacity to live happily or to be kind and generous.

My spanish language teacher in San Andres, Guatemala is Elga, a single mother of two kids in her late thirties. A daughter of mostly Mayan decent and a black Belizian english speaking grandmother. To begin with I must state that I am extremely lucky to have a teacher with her abilities and intelligence. Elga is a very smart woman, very joyous and caring - but most of all with respect to me, she is a great spanish teacher.

Just a stones-throw from the school there is this shop where we bought our pens and notebooks, the Flat Iron of San Andres

The classes are fluid enough for us to have many conversations about all kinds of things, and most recently I took some time to explain to her the idea of the "Bucket List" and its position in relation to "kicking the bucket". Most of our conversations are quite amusing, partly due to the language barrier, partly due to the cultural differences in perspective of the ideas we are discussing, and most of the time because we have fun talking about things in our lives. This conversation wasn't any different in this respect, except that "kicking the bucket" just took a while to make sense to Elga. Understandably, why would one kick a bucket and then be considered dead?

"Patear la cubeta!" [Kick the bucket.] Excited at the prospect of learning "kick" and "bucket" in spanish, and that after this fifteen minute conversation and numerous hand gestures (and drawings) we have arrived at the correct phrase in spanish.

Strange, confused look on her face.

"Si yo comprendo, pero por que?" [Yes I understand, but why?]

I then proceed to explain to Elga that patear la cubeta in English is a way of saying to end one's life, to pass away. [Drawing of stick-man on top of a bucket with a noose around his neck, and a phantom foot attached to a short ankle flying at the bucket suggesting a kick.]

Right, to end one's life. Muy bien.

"Todas personas deben tener una lista de la cubeta," I state. [Every person needs a bucket list.]

More confused looks on her face.

"Por que una lista de la cubeta?!" [Why a bucket list?!]

"Well,..." I proceed to explain, " is a list of things you wish to achieve before you kick the bucket (die), a list of dreams or hopes perhaps."

"Claro!" [Clear (meaning I understand)!]

Elga left class that day having given me homework for the night, and some homework of her own in hand. Yes, I did in fact give my teacher some homework - but it is more like soul searching and hardly tedious to have to dream up ten things to put on one's bucket list. She was to return her list the next day in class. Claro.

We all took our teachers for a special class to Ni´tun one day and had a wicked lunch there too! (Julia is on the left and was Colette´s teacher)

The next day Elga returned to class and shortly after the usual morning salutations and gratuities, I ask her about the list. She reaches out for my pen, and begins to write her list on the back of a piece of A4 paper - genuine smile on her face and a happy glint in her eye, similar to a child feeling proud following their first public musical recital having gone well.

After she is finished writing the ten items, I read them aloud in front of her with a few helping hints on a few words here and there, to make all things understood. Her list is beautiful, its actually amazing, it makes me want to cry but I don't because I would be ashamed to show that it is somehow unusual, or that I hadn't seen one like it before, in particular my own.

The whole gang at the Eco Escuela during our final week, teachers and students

Now to make things stand side by side in perspective, I shared my lista de la cubeta the day before and here is some of it now for references.

"Hike New Caledonia. Ride really, really far. Kayak around the islands in Fiji. Get shot out of a canon. Jump out of a plane over the Whitsunday's. Cartwheel on the moon." [Keep your judgments to your selves!]

Of the things on her list, half relate to studying to enable her to help people, looking after orphaned children, volunteer in her community, contribute to peace locally and elsewhere, convince people not to litter and to recycle.

We have an innocent laugh about the differences in our approach, me being all about conquering and me, me, me. And hers being, well just damned Mother Theresa. I blush a little, embarassed at my selfishness and ignorance, ashamed that this moment has taken me by surprise. But what could a woman like Elga, who feels fortunate and is quite educated among her own community in some no-name town in rural Guatemala, want to do before she dies? What else would she dream about apart from helping others?

I will be revisiting my bucket list. Thank you Elga.

My spanish teacher Elga and I

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lost in translation

Part of the week-long fair in Flores,
these lovely ladies are danced through the streets daily as part of a folklore story  
The marimba gets carted around the streets behind the ladies

Being severely handicapped in the local language can have many interesting outcomes. Conversations inevitably end in internal frustration, external awkwardness and communal confusion. On one hand, you are limited to repeating the same conversation daily. Not only are conversations about what I had for breakfast yesterday, what I am having for breakfast today and what I will have for breakfast tomorrow utterly boring for the obvious reasons, but also because breakfast is ALWAYS eggs, beans and tortillas. Perhaps a refried plantain on the odd occasion to stretch my vocabulary a bit.

The semi-outdoor smkoy kitchen where our beans, eggs and tortillias are ritually produced.
Note the meat smoking over the fire.

On the other hand, the inability to communicate can also have unintended but hilarious consequences. Vinko, Rosita (15) and I were watching cartoons and nursing our common cold when a young cousin wanders in and mentions something about some accident in a nearby town and a big building on fire (or simply a big fire?). When pressed, more details about an accident and the possibility of cars being involved emerged, followed by a definite confirmation that whatever happened happened on the road and something else about “muchas personas” and something about being dead.  Later we enquire about the fire and/or the accident, but nobody else seems to know anything about it.

This is how the traditional bollos were made:
mazie porridge stuffed with beans, then wrapped in banana leaves,
then steamed in a giant tub over the fire for a few hours. Any takers?

The next morning Doña Rosa, mama of the house, sits down with us and explains that the main meal of the day will be in the evening instead of at noon as is usually the case.
“Is it because it is Sunday?” we ask.

“Yes, it is Sunday.”  Close. Keep fishing.
“Is it because of church?”
Yes, I am going to church this morning.” Closer.  “The meal is a special traditional meal called bollos – it´s usually made this time of year when the festival in Flores is on.” Bingo! 
But then a string of words came at us like bullets, of which we caught on to: “I´m going to church this afternoon… death… traditional meal… walking… 3pm…” Pause.  “…cousin of Don Carmen… muchas personas… the festival… go if you want…

Death? Was it because of the accident last night?” we tentatively enquire.

No… No accident… … … … … … … … muchas personas… walking.”
Righto. Afterwards we agreed that whatever it was, we were being welcomed to participate in the events of afternoon. We returned home around 3pm, certain that we at least understood its significance as the start of some activity. We snuck into Darling’s room, armed with dictionary and notebooks.

Vas a ir a la iglesia este tarde?”  [Are you going to the church this afternoon?]

Y Doña Rosa? Ella va a la iglesia ahora?”  [Is Doña Rosa going to the church now?]
“Porque?” [Why?]
Por la entierra de la sobrina de Don Carmen.” Frantic dictionary search ensues. 
A funeral? His niece died?”
“Si”. Ah.
Now what? We retreat to our room to consider our options. Under the impression that it was some traditional fiesta that started at the church and walked through the street ending in traditional food, we had nodded enthusiastically that we would like to tag along to experience local culture when Doña Rosa invited us along this morning.  But now there was a body, a burial and “muchas personas” involved. Vinko – dictionary in hand – trotted back to the house to express proper condolences and to kindly decline the invitation to attend.

A few minutes later he returned.
“I understand now what happened.”

“There was an accident. The lady was a relative of Carmen´s.”
“Yes, his niece right?”
“Yes. She had diabetes… and she was very sick… and she got kicked in the head by a horse.”

Raised eyebrows. Suppressed laughter.
It´s not funny. It was an accident.”  Pause.  “Rosa definitely said a horse.”  Pause.  “Although I´m not sure which one happened first - if she was kicked by the horse before she got diabetes. I mean, I don´t know if it was the horse or the diabetes that killed her.”  Pause.  “But she died.”

Moral of the story? In life (and translation) only death is certain.

The view towards the east from a restaurant in San Andres. You can see San Jose on the peninsula. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Tribe of their own

One of the reasons why I personally like travelling so much (aside from the evolving scenery and sense of discovery, which rank top on the list) is the transient, non-committal feeling of it all. I like the constant shift between being here and being gone, being part of a defining moment in time and taking off before the moment loses its magic, the feeling that any of these haphazard, kindergarden-constructed days could change your life. The sense of freedom and wonder is exhilirating, addictive. Because of the fleeting feeling travel necessitates, it is unusual and more concrete when you get to experience moments within a group. The combined energy of the tribe opens a whole other universe of potential.

First encounter camping at Lake Peten. Sunrise at El Encantandero campsite
Westwards across Lake Peten.
We had a feeling like this between Christmas and New Years when we stayed in Flores, a heritage island in Lake Peten where the little Spanish stone houses were built on top of an old Mayan city. Cobblestone roads, colonial houses painted in M&M colours, flowerpots on the balconies... you get the picture. And in this charming town, in one of the colourful houses is Los Amigos Hostel, complete with a garden courtyard, yummy restaurant, bookshelves, a parrot a cat and a sausage dog, oversized pillows and plenty of hammocks. And a resident community of travelling macrame artists (the kind my sister would call nasty-ass-cracker-backbackers, complete with dreadlocks and flappy hemp pants), who loved the place so much that they have been stationed in the same hammocks and pillows for over 3 weeks working away at bracelets, necklaces, earrings and the like. This groups became our tribe, no thanks to the fact that Vinko picked up some macrame skills in Cancun and was keen to expand his repertoire (191 things you didn't know about Vinko!) We didn't quite join in the Kumbaja singing on the last night, but I was genuinely sad to part with these people three days later.

But we were barely on the road when we met the first member of another phantom tribe we belong to: the Crazy People on Bicycles Tribe. Everywhere we have been so far, the people who weren't utterly shocked at our travel methods were the ones who had encountered a bike tourist before. We keep hearing about this mysterious Swiss guy who always seems to be 2 weeks ahead of us, or another couple from 2 years ago. And more are coming out of the woodwork weekly, for example a Cairo to Cape Town rider raising funds for Tour d'Afrique Foundation. We were starting to doubt the authenticity of the rumours since we have not met any other cyclists. But on our way out of Flores we met Anna, an Aussie going all the way from Alaska to Argentina on bicycle. She's been going for about 18 months now, and has covered over 22,000km. With our day-glo orange milk crates and clearly ghetto arrangement of bags, it was no wonder that she could barely contain laughter. It was both an inspiring and intimidating first encounter with the phantom tribe.

Our current tribe is the community in the small village of San Andres, where we are living while struggling to get a grip on the Spanish language. We love it here. A bundle of colourful houses with rusty tin roofs tumble down the green mountain, connected by impossibly steep roads and hidden cobblestone stairways that usually lead nowhere but will dead-end with a spectacular view of the lake below. In the oppressive midday heat (welcome to winter in Peten province!) it's a ghost town - save for some feral dogs skulking around - but at sundown kids spill out onto the roads to play football, neighbours sit on front steps to share jokes and a lone fisherman cuts across the violet, pink and orange surface.

Streetscape, San Jose (2km from our house)

Sunset from Ni'Tun Ecolodge, New Years Eve
San Jose, about 2km east along the lake from San Andres
Our host family through the Eco-Escuala de Espanol program is Don Carmen and Dona Rosa Chabin. The family currently has 8 members living here, although some other rooms around us are rented out to include another 6 or so people milling around at the call of the rooster, which never fails to be at some random hour like 3am. We have our own little bungalow (glorified play hut), which looks across the short side of a 5x10m courtyard into the "open-plan" hand-wash laundry. Behind that is the "semi-open-plan" kitchen where Darling makes over 100 tortillas on the fire every day to feed the hungry masses. A cold shower ensures that everyone gets 2 showers daily without a line up. It's an ideal detour into village living for us, although the communal nature means that we are all sharing the same common cold now. I guess it comes with the (tribal) territory.
Part of laundry day (everyday) - this sweet arrangement is right under our window

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An adventurous holiday

We arrived in Guatemala around 10 in the morning of 23 December, leaving Belize and the comforts of conversing in English behind. Our initial enchantment with the country was again dampened a bit by its magnificent hills - beautiful to look at but absolute torture to ride up. When all else failed (which it did), we had the pleasure of pushing our bikes up a monster of a hill for 35 minutes straight.

Once we arrived at El Sombrero Ecolodge, we had vivid flashbacks to our time in Vietnam, where showing up independently and unannounced will reward you with blank stares and a good serving of bewilderment. But the location right on the Yaxha laguna and only 3km from the archeological site is unbeatable. It's also the only option in a 20km radius or so, and we were thrilled to camp up in the little "tree house" platform for a mere $5.

This is camping luxury my friends - El Sombrero Ecolodge, Yaxha
Our visit to the ancient Mayan city of Yaxha, which flourished during the Late Classic period, was magical despite an unusual arrival. My brakes were acting up the past 2 days, so we arrived at the bottom of the gravel hill to find a large group of American tourists pointing in our direction and looking rather disappointed that all the raucous was caused by a silly girl on a bike rather than a jaguar chasing some wild pigs down the hill. I believe the whole saga was captured on at least 6 camcorders to enthrall the family back home with... apart from this group who left after taking a few photos, we had the whole site to ourselves. Yaxha is structured around a central axis with one of the avenues stretching down the hill to connect directly to the lake. We climbed the stairs from the lake through the forest and progressed through grassy tree-covered mounds to half uncolvered small structured to perfectly restored temples. We sat for a long time on top of one of the temples that towered of the green canopy listening to the howler monkeys and contemplating human nature and the rise and fall of civilizations.

Christmas dinner was a turkey with all the trimmings, shared with the owners of El Sombrero and two German bird watchers who were visiting an insane number of mayan sites on their short trip. Pre-dinner we realised that we didn't change enough money at the border, and we were already $3 short to pay our bill, and the closest ATM is a day's ride away. Hunger won, and it was decided that we would feast for Christmas Eve and spend the following day (Xmas) tagging along on the Germans' tour to a remote Mayan site called El Naranjo, since they were passing through a town with an ATM on the way.

We started the El Naranjo adventure at 9am. Sebastian was driving, Gabriella was commentating, Carlos - a short but sharp Mayan man we picked up along the way - was giving driving directions through the cattle fields and what little jungle remained, the Germans were checking their watches and looking anxious, and we sat in the back of the pick-up bouncing around like popcorn and not knowing where we were or where we were going. By noon we had to call a mechanic out to the rocky road to come and remove some small rocks from the brakes. By 1pm we were a mere 4km from the site when the road disappeared into a meter deep cement-like black mud (a guaranteed stuck) and we had to turn back. By 2pm we had backtracked most of the way, found an alternative path, asked permission from the farmer to cross his land, removed some trees from the road and now stood facing a locked gate ($%#?????) at the bottom of a steep hill. Reversing was not an option, turning around was impossile, and my suggestion of just ramming the gate down was disapproved. By now the Germans looked thoroughly distressed. We ate some wild mushrooms while we waited for Sebastian, who had hiked 2km back to get a key, to return. We figured any outcome from the mushrooms would be an improvement to the situation. We were disappointed.

At last the key arrived, we crossed that last of the 5km on a track barely fit for horses and arrived (Merry Chistmas!) at 3pm at El Naranjo archeological site. The site is currently being consolidated by a team of over 100 people, who were all home for the holidays, so we wandered through the completely deserted site in peace. Carlos - the Mayan guy - worked at the site for 8 months drawing every piece of the main temple for the catalogue, and he had lots of cool information to share. As with other post-classic sites impending doom could be foretold by the architecture: the rish and powerful lived in impossibly high structures; they built their own courtyards high in the shy and walled off the entrances to avoid contact with the suffering masses. Ornately carved walls were not as common anymore and the building stones were much smaller because the quarries were depleted. The sacrificial temple was hence augmented. Again we pondered civilization.

We had a really adventurous Christmas, but we did miss our families and a more familiar festivity. We hope you all had a wonderful time and relaxed till you were bored!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


We wanted to start 2011 by thanking some people who truly deserve it. Travel adventures such as this one are not possible without the support of truly good hearted people. Our ability to carry out this trip is not through our means alone, to the contrary there is a long list of people in the chain that streches from its inception to the present day. The successes of our travel belong in part to the people that made it possible. This page is dedicated to these colorful individuals.

First and foremost, thank you from the bottom of our hearts to our families for all their support and most importantly for loving us for exactly who we are despite our crazy ideas. A big thank you to all our friends back home, wherever that may be, who stood besides us at the crack of dawn sharing outmost optimism. Our dear friends, you are all part of a much bigger family, we gauge our sanity by you.

Thank you very much to Paco and his dear friend Jesus in Cancun for setting us off on the right foot. For taking part in our adventure and providing the neccesery pushes along the way, thank you - the capable hands at Hadza Bikes in Cancun; Luis and Fabian in Puerto Morelos; Wilbert and son of Santa Fe Cabanas in Tulum; Pepe and the welcoming staff of CESiaK, Dan Hazard of Xamach Dos; the whole loving community of Punta Allen; Manuel at Caseta Santa Teresa in Siaan Kaan; Rheine and Elka of Laguna Azul in Pedro Antonio Santo; Stefan and Romana from Austria; Oscar de Alba of Kuuch Kaanil in Bacalar; Manuel and Mansul for Chachoben; Nathalie and Eduardo of Backpackers Paradise in Sarteneja; Katherine from New Zealand; Rawell, Lance and family Pelayo of Lamani Riverside Retreat in Orange Walk Town; Angie and Mick Webb with family of Crooked Tree Lodge; Gabriel the bamboo rasta of FaceItProductionBambuMe; Margo, Brittany and Aretha at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary; Tim and Corey from Calgary; Rod at The Olde Mill; Marcus and Theo along with their family of Parrot Nest Lodge in Bullet Tree Falls; Abby and Owen from Washington; Nicole from San Francisco; Sandra from New York; Mick Fleming, Lucy and Brionny along with the entire world class staff at Chaa Creek Lodge; Dosio and family of Macal River Camp at Chaa Creek Lodge; Teo and Ramona from Seattle; Sebastian de la Hoz Moretti and his mother Gabriela of Ecolodge El Sombrero at Laguna Yaxha; Jeronimo and his staff of hostel Los Amigos in Flores; Catarina and her amazing groundskeeper Jose of El Encantandero at Jobompiche; Lorena, Bernie and staff of Ni´tun; John, Ally and family from New York...and the list continues to grow.

To all of the above people, a heartfelt - thank you, baie dankie, mnogo hvala, muchas gracias!