Overcrowded Minibuses and First-Class Air Travel

February 2nd, 2013 4:07 pm by Dave from here

New Year’s Eve in Flores was exciting. We went to Raices Bar And Grill, a View Restaurant (which later turned out to have a low rating on TripAdvisor but I thought it was fine) and purchased friendship bracelets from a child who came to the table selling fabrics. Support your local child abductor. Then, we got a notification from Facebook pointing to a terse message from Justin to all of his friends: “Hey guys! Do not park in the driveway at our house. It is cordoned off for a plumber to park there. Long story. Just step over or under the caution tape when you arrive.” Plumber. New Year’s Eve. Caution Tape. So not the keywords you want to read 4000 kilometers away, about your own house. And then he texted us: “Anyway, there’s nothing y’all can do from there so enjoy whatever you’re doing and don’t worry about us. Bye-eeee!”

The fireworks displays in Guatemala are individual, not municipal. We sat on the edge of the island and watched fireworks go off across the water all around Santa Elena. Several fireworks were set during the hours before midnight, and the display was pretty continuous for about 10 minutes on each side of midnight. They gradually tapered off, including some the next few nights. The next morning there were pieces of firework confetti everywhere.

On New Year’s Day in the afternoon, the whole island became a paseo where the cars drove one way and the pedestrians another. The boys send their photos by SMS to the girls when they pass the first time, and if the girl hasn’t friended him by the next pass, then he knows he has been rejected.

There was a little food market at the north end of the island where people served various things to spread on soft or fried tortillas, and lots of delicious desserts. Three people played tunes on a marimba, simultaneously.

Wednesday we continued our trip, taking a bus from Flores to Quiriguá, and a “tuk-tuk” (a little three-wheeler with a cab) to Posada de Quiriguá, a delightful little place run by a Japanese woman named Masaki. There wasn’t really any Internet or hot water to speak of, but she fixed delicious Japanese dinners and Guatemalan breakfasts made from ingredients from her property including vegetables and fruits, and honey from tiny Mayan stingless bees. These bees are not much cultivated any more among the Mayans, who can make more export dollars with the African-European hybrids, despite their ill temper. I found that the honey has a jelly-like feel, and a fruitier taste than that of the European bees. There were some cute birds which visited the trees in her Japanese garden, including a few motmots. The male motmots have very long tails which flare out at the end like an iced tea spoon. The females don’t have the long tail, but both have many patches of light blue.

We took a few hours on Thursday to explore the Quiriguá ruins. On our way there, we drove through a banana plantation. Our tuk-tuk had to stop for about 10 minutes while a procession of bunches of bananas hanging on rolling hooks crossed the road. The area which had been excavated was impeccably groomed as a large lawn (in the classic period it was paved), and featured very tall stelae which were in relatively good shape. There were no guides, printed or live, so we muddled along the best we could. We noticed that the carving was much more three-dimensional, with much deeper relief, than what we had seen in the Tikal area. At one point some Guatemalan tourists handed me my iPad charger and Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter which had fallen out of my pack. Gotta keep those zippers zipped up.

The town of Quiriguá doesn’t seem to get a lot of tourists. It all seemed very local. We walked all over town at 2pm and there was really no place to have a late lunch. This is the marker of civilization, isn’t it? There is a room full of typewriters in the town. Typewriters neatly on desks. No cobwebs or vines growing over them. I wonder what happens there.

Friday we moved on to Copán in Honduras, which involved a tuk-tuk from the hotel to the main road, a minibus in which there was standing room only (with bowed head because of the low ceiling) for the first half hour: two hours later we were delivered to Chiquimula after a change of equipment in Zacapa. We were approached by a taxi tout who said we could take the bus to the border, or we could take a taxi all the way to Copán for 300 quetzals. After the crowded minibus, we opted for the taxi. When we got to the border the driver said he couldn’t go across, so we stiffed him, paying only 200 ($25), which was still a little pricey.

The border informalities are muted at El Florido, Honduras. Apparently going to Copán is not the same as going to the real Honduras. You don’t get robbed or murdered, for one thing, and they don’t seem to make as big a fuss immigration-wise (There is supposed to be a Schengen-type agreement among the Central American nations, which would promise no border at all, but bureaucrats really need the work.) We got a “Copán only” slip on the Guatemala side, and a Copán stamp on the Honduras side, with small cash payments on both sides.

We took another minibus to the cute tourist town of Copán Ruinas. Our hotel Yat B’Alam was again very cute, and it had fully functional WiFi and a shower better than ours at home (not saying much). The little table in the room had once held up a sewing machine. The restaurant guides highlighted a hacienda across the river from the ruins, which had an office next door to the hotel: the owner made reservations for us there for the next night, and also arranged a good English-speaking guide for us for the next day. A guy on the street told us about a German brewpub, and we ended up having a progressive dinner, with good German beer and sausage at one place, and grilled steak at the next.

Saturday morning we took the short walk to the actual ruins, and met our guide. The excavated part of Copán is also much smaller than Tikal, but it has undergone extensive archeological research. The highlight is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, with about 100 wide steps each made from twenty or so blocks, each with a Mayan glyph. Unfortunately, the steps all fell down except the bottom few rows, so the people who have reconstructed it could not be sure which block went where — the overall message will probably never be deciphered. Like the other temples we’d seen, they built new temples on top of old ones. Copán featured tunnels that let you see features from some of the old temples. It is also famous for the deep three-dimensionality of its sculpture, and the guide supposed that Copán influenced Quiriguá in that way. After exploring the ruins, we proceeded to the site’s Sculpture Museum, which featured many original stelae and altars (castings of them at the original locations). It was a big place, with a reconstruction of an earlier version of one of the temples, painted as people imagine the original might have been. In general, wherever we saw stone, the Mayans would have seen red paint; where we saw grass covering a platform, they would have seen white stucco. Our guide told us to have lunch at Pupuseria Mary’s, which was nearby — the pupusas were delicious, as were the enormous passion fruit and mango licuados.

Sunday a comfortable uncrowded minivan picked us up and took us to Antigua. The first part of the drive was pretty similar to what we’d seen, but eventually we got into Guatemala City. The road stayed high atop the mountains, crossing over high bridges from one little ridge to the next, with the vast city splayed out in poverty beneath. When we arrived, the first view of our hotel was a wall with a door. We rang and went in, and found the most beautifully landscaped place ever. The hotel was built next to the ruins of an old church, and plants grew strategically all over the ruins. The higher altitude was reflected in the fact our room had a fireplace, not an air conditioner, though it wasn’t really cold. We asked the owner where to eat, and then walked into town. Antigua is unlike any place I’d ever seen, with cobblestone streets (in a Cartesian grid) lined with windowless walls (like the larger roads in Huntington Beach). Some blocks’ walls would contain no openings at all; others would have a few doors. We walked past the Cathedral facade and through the central park, then up along a main shopping street to the restaurant. Even that street, though it had many open doorways, had none of the glass walls you see on shopping streets anywhere else in the world (they have building codes that ensure that you can’t put up big windows or paint your wall an unusual color). The restaraunt for our thirtieth anniversary was Hector’s, a tiny bistro serving French-ish food. My favorite dish was the spice-grilled duck with roasted grapes. Hector, the young owner, arrived after awhile and chatted up all the guests.

Monday was unfortunately our only day to explore the town. We started at Casa Santo Domingo, a larger hotel complex also built alongside ruins of a church. This one had several small museums: silver metalwork, an old pharmacy like we’d seen in Cuba, handicrafts. My favorite was a museum whose exhibits showed Mayan sculptures of faces or animals alongside modern glassware showing the same thing. The style was radically different than what is at the ruined cities. Much more comprehensible. We visited the Convent of the Capuchins: we saw the ruins but the museum was undergoing restoration. Above, there was a panopticon with small cells that monks would pray and study in; beneath it was a large round room with very dynamic acoustics. The Cathedral facade you see on the square was the old entrance to a very large cathedral demolished by a series of earthquakes in the 18th century — eventually they gave up rebuilding it, especially since the capital had moved from Antigua Guatemala to Nueva Guatemala, known today as Guatemala City.

Dinner was at Panza Verde, a hotel at the south end of town owned by an expatriate from New York, who sat in the bar and chatted with whoever sat down there. He recommended his favorite wines, comped us some delicious Zacapa rum, and warned us there’d be New Orleans jazz. As it turned out, it was mellow piano music played by a guy from New Orleans, which in retrospect we wished we’d been closer to. We asked for a cab back to our hotel, and got in a long discussion about TripAdvisor, and the unreliability of the users who rate things. Ray has found that the ratings are often pretty good for hotels, though usually useless for restaurants. To use it most effectively, you have to make your own rating of each rater, and figure out how many grains of salt to take them with.

We flew back to Miami, from where I continued on to SFO and Ray visited Mike in Avon Park. Through some kind of Expedia fluke, I ended up in Business/First class on these flight segments, and it is interesting to see how the 1% flies. Lunch was pretty nice, a good grilled vegetable salad and some uninspired fajita beef wrapped in a flour tortilla. Poor Ray was stuck back in steerage, but always remarks on how flying economy is one of the highest-paying jobs one can have, saving hundreds of dollars an hour. When I got to the Miami airport, I visited the large “Admiral’s Club”, where the greeter asked me “Do you drink?” and handed me two free premium drink coupons, which of course I used. Oddly enough, the Miami airport also has a The Counter, one of a mostly California chain of upscale burger restaurants; I squeezed in a quick meal there. Probably the nicest thing about flying First Class is getting handled a bottle of water just after you sit down. And still being able to use your laptop after the seat in front of you fully reclines.

B’ak’tun 13

December 31st, 2012 7:02 pm by Dave from here

We walked across the Belize-Guatemala border and were set upon by taxi touts. According to my notes, the initial bid for taxi service was $60 US per person; but I waited until the rate of descent in the asking price dropped below the salary I pay myself for the task of listening to touts, and accepted an offer of $10 US per person to Flores on the bus. This was acceptably lower than the initial taxi quote; the elapsed time between arriving at the Belize side of the border and getting on the bus to Flores was from 12:09 to 12:51. If the price had been declining in a straight line, we would have saved $50 in 42 minutes, per person, about $71 per hour; not as lucrative as flying economy, but still decent wages. In fact, the last ten minutes of that period only got us from $15 down to $10. This was all without making any counteroffers, about which I know nothing, just the taxi drivers talking among themselves and wondering what manner of man we were. I charge a lot more for talking.

The bus was delayed in getting started due to having to change a tire and wait for several people to get their passports stamped. The bus tire changing at borders could become a low-grade meme; I have a 1600 x 1200 Coolpix photo of a couple of guys changing a bus tire at the Bulgarian/Turkish border in 1999. (That’s not bad for 1999. I only lately upgraded past a 1600 x 1200 monitor.) We were on our way to Flores by 13:22.

A girl on the bus fanned herself with her Maltese passport. I wrote postcards about it to my friends in Malta.

Flores is an exceptionally cute little town in eastern Guatemala, on a small island in a lake. It looked distinctly European, with narrow cobblestone streets, and scads of hotels and restaurants. It and its not-so-cute counterpart Santa Elena across the bridge are the jumping-off points to Tikal, a massive set of Mayan ruins. We planned a four-day three-night tour to Tikal and two other sets of ruins, but it turned out that at some point in the planning they simply stopped answering e-mails, and that we forgot to notice. So we arrived in Flores having no idea what would actually happen next. See above about three guys telling you exactly what; we were able to walk into a travel agency near the hotel and to book the three nights in Tikal that we planned to stay, and to go on most of the tours we’d planned to go on.

It was a little unclear what all was included with the booking we made; it was said to include transportation there, and meals the first day, but it turned out to include breakfast and dinner, tours, and the trip back as well. We were a little worried the next morning at 9:45 AM when the transportation hadn’t shown up for 45 minutes, but finally it did and everything seemed legitimate again.

The Mayans were a pretty amazing civilization. They lived on the Yucatán Peninsula and what is now Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and western Honduras. They flourished from about 500 BC to 800 AD. They were definitely into astronomy, and built pyramids in many places from which three towers were visible showing you where the sun would rise on the solstices and equinoxes. They used Venus to determine when to go to war. So far we have visited three different Mayan sites, and will be visiting two more in the next week. We spent a couple days at Tikal, and a couple hours of each of the next two days at Yax Ha and Uaxactún on private guided tours. Tikal is immense, and has been 20% excavated. It did not suffer from the looting which has befallen many other Mayan sites, unless you count Harvard. It has many temples in the form of pyramids, which held the remains of royalty, who all became gods or goddesses when they died. Why don’t our guys do that? Outside of Steve Jobs, I can’t think of a fallen pillar of American society who is anything you would call venerated. All the crosses had their tops cut off…

Tikal has ruins of other smaller temples for burial of less-important elites, and ruins of areas where the elite class resided, all built of stone. Most interior spaces had a roof in the form of a “Mayan arch”, with diagonal sides and a short horizontal span at the top. This form could support a room about two meters wide. Mayan cities had immense populations, though: someone had to build all those pyramids and temples and platforms and causeways. Their houses were made of thatch, and have not survived. If you had stood on the top of one of the pyramids at the height of the Classic period, you would not have been able to see the forest in the distance. That ultimately proved to be a problem. It takes about 4 square kilometers of forest to build a temple — fire for lime for the plaster and the masa for the workers.

On the first day we took an “archeological tour” which introduced us to most of the areas in the central part of the city.

The second morning we took a “sunrise tour”. This is less a magical experience than a pagan pilgrimage. We left the hotel with all the other occupants at 4am, walked to Temple IV and up the wooden stairway, and sat there silently from about 5:30 to 6:45. We could see Temple III illuminated by the full moon; after a while the unforgettable sound of the howler monkeys began, as well as all kinds of bird foley. The flash units silently sparkled, catching glimpses of the hajji. There were lots of clouds near the horizon, so while Venus was clearly visible, we didn’t get to see Mercury rise. Finally the sun broke through the cloud layer, and we walked back through the city, stopping to see not only buildings but also plants (including an allspice tree and an edible palm plant, the pacaya) and birds (including a large toucan visible from a distance, and several small toucanets flying around a tree in the Gran Plaza, and colorful Ocellated Turkeys) and insects (including mating moths, army and leafcutter ants, and termite tubes attached to the bottom of branches). Why do termites put themselves in such untenable places and then build tunnels to get to where they want to be? We saw this in Western Australia as well: the termites will build on the top of some rock and then construct a twenty meter dirt passageway down to the ground. It’s as if a human were to work in the city and build a house miles away — say, where is Levittown?

We returned later in the day to explore on our own, visiting Group G (a small palace complex with a very interesting entry tunnel with a 90-degree angle, tall enough to walk through, which a lot of passages aren’t) and the acropolises around the Gran Plaza.

Our guide to Yax Ha and Uaxactún was again Juan Sandoval, a tourism lifer who was born in the area. His father is a chiclero, the woodsmen who collect chicle and for whom none of the lost cities were ever lost. Juan’s family pointed out to the archaeologists some Mayan areas. He speaks flawless English, and it was a great learning experience. He knows the name of every temple and stele, and what year it was built, what Mayan discovered it and what European archaeologist/vandal took credit for it, or looted it. He also knows the common names in English of all the birds in the area. Yax Ha is slightly larger than Tikal, but much less has been excavated. It is located next to a large lake. Uaxactún is a smaller site, not far from Tikal, and it was badly looted. Even some archaeologists there did a bad job: a few decades ago a team from Harvard decided to simply dynamite several temples in order to get to the stuff buried below. (Apparently, most looters knew how to tunnel in without causing so much destruction.) And they built an airstrip through the middle of the site. Later excavations were done more professionally and carefully. Today, Uaxactún is a small village with pigs and chickens and radios. The runway has become a soccer field and a marketplace.

The Mayans had a technique of adding to a pyramid every once in awhile (often every 52 years), making it somewhat like an onion: you peel off one layer of steps and find another one inside. This certainly complicates the presentation to tourists visiting the site. They, also, were vandals and looters. The Red Guards and Harvard and Ansar Dine have not invented anything.

Now we are back in Flores for New Year’s, in a nice hotel room with a lakeside view. Hopefully the fireworks won’t keep us up all night.

A Very Creole Christmas

December 31st, 2012 6:57 pm by Dave from here

This vacation started Sunday night in Miami: we had different family obligations. Ray had flown to Oregon for a Christmas dinner with his cousins, and I’d gone to Kansas for a funeral. We met in Fort Lauderdale, and left for Belize the next morning from Miami.

We stayed at a very cute place, Villa Boscardi, just north of downtown Belize City. Belize is actually kind of expensive: we were met at the airport by someone who took us to the hotel for $25 US. Belize dollars seem fixed at 2 to a US dollar, and seem invariably to be used for minor purchases, while major ones are always quoted in US dollars. After we checked in, we took a taxi downtown for a more reasonable $10 US, bought stamps at the post office, established that the Museum of Belize was closed on Mondays, and set out in search of TripAdvisor’s favorite Belize City restaurant, an Indian place. It turned out that while its open hours were all day, it was also closed on Monday. So we went to the next place that TripAdvisor said was authentically Belizean. At Nerie’s 1 the proprietor told us the food had run out, so we should go to Nerie’s 2, because it had the same food. So we went over there. It was humble and homelike and good. Ray had some chicken soup with cassava and vegetables, with coconut rice on the side, and I had a different chicken soup, chimole, which was black in color and seemed to have things in common with Mexican mole. It was also spicy — seemed like black peppers instead of chilis. The stock might have been based on a Maggi cube but this is an ex-British colony after all.

The next morning we checked out, had a taxi drop our bags off at the municipal airport, and drop us off at the museum. It had several cute exhibits, including information about the history of Belizean independence, an air-conditioned room full of Belizean stamps, a large area showing Mayan artifacts, and a small room with Belizean insects. There is a great incentive to hang out in the rooms that are air conditioned. We walked back to the airport, and got in a twin-engine Cessna which flew us and two other people to Dangriga. There we met the boat that took us to Pelican Beach Resort South Water Caye, where we spent the next several days.

The island we were on in South Water Caye had about five small properties, of which Pelican Beach Resort was by far the most popular. The number of guests ranged from five to twenty over the nights we were there. It is minimal. There were four things for sale in the souvenir case: aprons, stuffed cloth dolls, key rings, and Tampax. Dinner was made from whatever they caught that day. Lobsters the first two nights; conch for a couple of nights, fish always.

We were approached at dinner one night by a woman who recognized us. She had come up to look at the apartment in 1999. She now teaches at Deep Springs College.

There was easy snorkeling off the beach the first couple of days. The seabed looked like the Arizona desert underwater: soft corals like ocotillos waving in the water. There were many species of cute reef fish hanging around, many hiding amongst the soft coral, or in front of color-matched brain coral. The most spectacular water creature we saw was an eagle ray, swimming near the dock around sunset. There were dozens of frigate birds, and dozens of pelicans which continuously dove into the shallow water and scooped up little fish.

It was somewhat uncharacteristic of us to just go to one place and stay there for several days basically doing nothing. In my case, I spent quite a few hours of that nothing-time adding a feature to Pro Tools. On the third and fourth day the wind came up, making snorkeling not so much fun, but providing plenty of time to read as well as work and sleep.

We took a slightly bigger boat across a much bumpier sea back to Dangriga, and took a taxi which had been arranged for us up to our next destination, Manatee Lodge at Gales Point. We had seen Gales Point from the plane on the way down, a spit of land fifty meters wide and two miles long sticking into the southern end of the Southern Lagoon: the lodge was located out at the very tip. Once again, we were staying for a long time (four nights) with basically nothing to do. We took a little manatee boat trip and saw several emergences of manatee nostrils near a buoy which marked an undersea hot springs they enjoy warming up at. It was not really that different from watching a meteor shower. We never saw anything like an entire manatee, but we heard lots of descriptions of how big they were. The boat went back out with a 13-year-old trying fishing for the first time, and he came back with a jack that the cook expertly prepared, perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Manatee Lodge is owned by Nancy, a woman who left Michigan 12 years ago and her Belizean husband. After the first night we were the only tourists staying there, but all the other rooms were occupied by her in-laws who were there for Christmas. Her mother was staying there as well. On our first full day there, we walked the two miles through the village down to the police station, and met various members of the community, including a retiree from Las Vegas whose Social Security checks presumably go much further than they would back home, and an artist who offered to sell us some ganja. Belize, and especially this village, has a Creole culture like many Caribbean islands. The residents could understand us as well as anyone, but it was often difficult to understand their language, even peppered as it was with generally recognizable English words. It was always interesting hearing Nancy speak Creole with a Michigan accent with her husband and her staff. We went on a birdwatching tour that was really a boat ride, pointing out various large water birds as we went, egrets, herons, ibises, and some roseate spoonbills. It included zipping through a winding channel up to the Northern Lagoon and to Bird Caye, an island inhabited by hundreds of ibises, and zipping back in time to arrive around dark.

After the first day we were the only people in the dining room, except when Nancy decided to eat with her mother. I asked Nancy why she didn’t serve the whole family in there. She said that Creole family values do not include taking meals together. One of the most common things to decry in the failing American family is that people don’t eat together like the Cleavers. Nancy said, that she had tried to get everyone to take meals together here but they just don’t do it. The way in that culture is that a plate is prepared in the kitchen, and each person comes to take his plate, and goes off and eats it somewhere. And don’t try to ask for less food. Nancy also described an exchange between her cook and a guest who said there was just too much beans and rice. The cook said, “Send it back, then. I’m sorry, I just can’t give you any less.”

The next day was Christmas, and the day after that was Boxing Day. Gales Point is a ghost town; but Christmas is All Souls Day. People who have moved away come back for dancing and drumming. On each of those days, it is the tradition of the village and its alumni to go “brammin'”. Officially, the idea is that you “sing for your supper”: the entire village starts at one end, a bunch of drumming starts up at one of the host houses, a bunch of call-and-response singing happens atop the drumming, and the hosting houses serve bits of food and plenty of drinks to anyone who wants any. The entire procession goes down the road, ending up at the other end well after dark. The next day, the whole thing happens again in the opposite direction. We walked along with the group and took pictures. Everybody knew everybody. A lot of them were wearing their new Christmas clothes with the price tags still on. is this a style just now? It’s a logical progression from having Yves Saint Laurent’s monogram on your clothes if you’re not named Yves Saint Laurent. On Boxing Day, being part of the mob meant that we got some free wine from “Gentle’s Cool Spot” (the other remaining lodging in Gales Point) made out of island fruits, in our case pineapple, and berry.

The following morning, the price tags were part of the litter on the road. Why do poor neighborhoods have so much more litter than rich ones? There’s nothing special about money that keeps you from dropping your candy wrappers on the ground, is there?

The best quote for a taxi ride to the Guatemalan border came not from anyone in the village, but from the guy who took us from Dangriga a few days earlier. His son (and one of the son’s cousins) picked us up and we made the three-hour-or-so drive across Belize, on dirt and paved roads. Their taxi company is the most famous in Dangriga. He gets to carry the government officials. The cars come from the U.S. It’s a 24 hour drive from Belize to Texas. I have an unfortunate engram from arriving at the North Prague train station in 1999 and finding no taxis or buses or anything. We had to walk toward downtown until somebody picked us up, don’t remember who. Always I worry when we get to a transportation intersection, there will be nobody there who can tell us how to go to the next place. (That experience was an outlier. The almost universal experience is that before you have even alighted from your arriving conveyance, there will be three guys there telling you exactly how to do what you wanted to do next, before you even tell them your plans.)