A friend asked a funny question the other day. She wanted to know if we were bored on our trip. More specifically, she wanted to know if the kids were bored. This thought had never really occurred to me. But if you have kids, then you are no stranger to the "I'm booooooooored." half moan half whine. And I can say that on more typical 'vacations' we have experienced boredom. But not this time. On actual 'travel days' there are so many logistical distractions that even an arduous and never ending bus trip can't be classified as boring. Long, nerve wracking, sketchy, mysterious, stinky, enlightening, mind numbing, hot, sticky, tension filled, downright aggressive, sleepy, cramped, scary, etc....but never boring. Even after three months we were always on our proverbial toes and we're constantly being amazed, shocked and awed. Central America is so diverse and culturally rich that we never experienced boredom. We also were aiming to always be learning, whether it was language, food, foreign money, history, politics, scuba, surf, customs, or unique religious practices. And then of course there is architecture, landscape, and local flora and fauna. See what I mean?
Believe it or not, kids have an innate desire to learn and grow and there is nothing in the world like foreign travel to foster that in a natural way, free of boredom. Their minds were always peaked. They were constantly doing math, which they claim to hate, with never ending calculations from dollars to quetzals to lempira. Lewis and Della are cut throat money managers and quickly figured out that they were being charged more because they were American and because they were kids, in certain instances. Do you think they stood for this? No, hell, they didn't. And in Spanish, they would negotiate their fair price and change, sometimes with heat. We never helped them. Because learning and growing are personal. Della came out of a shop in Antigua and asked me, "Mom, how do I say "I appreciate your honesty." in Spanish?" How do you teach math, ethics, language and grace all in one lesson to a child? Travel.
I do want to add that store owners are honest and are simply working with the very real fact that many, many American travelers are often too lazy to convert and properly assimilate to the local currency. My kids went to the tienda a few times with some kids from Wisconsin who were traveling in Guatemala for ten day with a tour group. They wouldn't go to the trouble to convert currencies and would pay 1 US dollar for something that cost 1 Quetzal....effectively giving 10 times the value of the item and willingly creating a flawed system. It quickly becomes a cold, hard, fact that money, for most Americans, is easily wasted. Don't be that traveler.
We spent long stretches of time in a few places....Xela, Utila, Antigua, El Tunco. We met people. We made friends. Most places, the kids could do their own thing. They could run to the corner store, go swimming, snorkeling or boating. They could order their own meals and hang out with folks, play games, read, watch movies, There were animals to be played with. Primarily and constantly, we were figuring out new cultures, languages, and customs. We were always learning, sometimes with intention but more often, covertly and under the radar. There was no room for boredom.
We usually stayed in hostels. We lived somewhat communally, which meant that there was always someone new to meet or hang out with. We met very few kids along the way, but the backpacker set is a lovely group of folks. They are young and vibrant and fun to hang out with. They were good to my kids. Hostels often plan events. We'd go to "movie night" or the kids would participate in "water games". We never played beer pong, but it was amusing to watch, and the antithesis of boring!
Pictured above is a fun afternoon of water games at our dive hostel. Della loved Drip, Drip, Drop. You can figure it out from the photos! They built a water slide. Our local dogs were avid swimmers and always willing to play. Travel heightens your senses and raises the old awareness, And if boredom whispers at the door on a lazy afternoon I suppose you could stand at the end of the dock and meditate on soaring eagle rays and sailboats moored in the sunset till it passes.
Nothing is straightforward in Central America and I mean NOTHING. I am posting this from my phone because the computer is on the fritz and has been for a few weeks. Something as simple as finding a mag charger for a Mac Air is literally a wild goose chase that could involve a soap salesman, a Burger King, or a stint in prison. You just never know. My Dad's final parting words before our trip were not "I love you" or "have fun". His final words were "don't do anything stupid".
So, I haven't gotten a tattoo or pierced any body parts and neither have the kids. I think that's sort of what he meant. However, several times most everyday, we have done something that would easily fall into the 'stupid' category. Whether it's crossing a border into a recently war torn country, eating black clams from a jungle swamp, driving through San Pedro Sula (google it), or simply stepping up into a chicken bus we have said yes to adventure, yes to life, and sometimes yes to stupid. Sorry Dad.
I don't dare upload a picture. It will time out and I'll have to start all over. Wifi is ridiculously unpredictable. I am writing down the stories and will share them all when we get home, I promise. Because I know you want to hear about Max on the crib mattress in the back of the pick up truck, what it's like to find yourself in an El Salvadorean hospital (loose term)twice in one day, and where you should go to indulge your dark side, should you have one, in a positive, uplifting environment. How cryptic is that?
We we are headed back to Antigua today to insinuate ourselves into the biggest, loudest, most crowded and fervent celebration in all of Central America....Semana Santa. We have been warned that it is nonstop, and over the top, That we'd be crazy (stupid) to be in Antigua during Semana Santa. But I love Easter. I love the idea of being in the very epicenter, barring the Vatican, of Holy Week. So while it may not be the most prudent choice, sharing Easter with such an exuberant group of faithful folks sounds like a good idea.
Bottom line....hang on....I'll be back in touch.
We’re having a hard time leaving Utila. The kids don’t want to go. It feels homey. We’ve figured out how things work, which is not hard since the main street is less than a mile long. There is a clear blue ocean out the back door, and a dog has adopted us. I am quite happy to subsist on avocado baleadas (a fresh tortilla with black beans, egg, salty cheese, and avocado) bananas and fresh coconut water, which makes my food bill for the entire day a whopping seventy cents. .
Utila offers just enough and then no more. It requires island ingenuity.....I had to make my Valentine's from the pages of an old German novel and am trying to come up with a recipe for sunscreen. It’s very poor, but it provides. Last night was sushi night at our hostel and it was darn good. The guy who made it all posted a list of choices and then you sign up and he delivers. The ladies in the kitchen at our hostel are exploiting my children's sugar addiction, twenty limpiras at a time.
"Hola, Guapo.!¿Quieres un poco de pastel ?" ....Hey Handsome! Want some cake? And of course they do. Last night it was poppyseed cake with strawberry ice-cream. Who can argue with that?
When you read the guide books they say that Utila has a ‘trash problem’. It does and they are working on it. I’m sure it has infrastructure problems. There are no street rules, signs, or police here. We rented a golf cart and I asked about policies and rules. The guy just looked at me. “Try not to wreck it.” he said. I gave Della the keys and we were off…..
It’s not unlike stepping back in time to maybe 1982. The international backpacker set is loud, fun, carefree and interesting. Diversity rules the day and it's fun just trying to figure out what languages are being spoken and what country advocates toe socks and underwear as proper daytime attire. Wes Anderson should make a movie here. But then it would be spoiled, or saved, depending on how you see things.
If we knew where we were going exactly, it might be easier to leave, but we change our mind every day. There are lots of great choices, There is Belize, Tikal, the Pacific coast of El Salvador, Mexico, or probably the best choice....Nicaragua. HOWEVER, we don't think we can handle the twenty hour shuttle ride. (It's advertised at twelve hours, but the grapevine says different) We have found that a great deal of our time is spent debating the pros and cons of modes of travel with other travelers and working out plans.
Travel days can be brutal. A full frontal assault of body, mind and spirit. The shuttle ride here was ridiculous....with twelve very large people crammed in the smallest van you can imagine. Which is perhaps good in the sense that the absentee seat belts are rendered useless, as no one can budge anyway. The roads are virtually lawless. Potholes are wide and deep. Shocks are nonexistent, so you could very well lose or loose a tooth, and you should definitely be wearing a supportive bra. No one in Central America got the memo on 'How to pass on a mountain road with a fast approaching line of traffic, the first of which is a gas truck....." I'm not even going to mention banditos.
If there was such a thing as a travel fairy, I'd click my heels, and have five cheap plane tickets to the next destination. Amber, a friend at the hostel, has found a yacht that goes from here to Belize City, but we'd need to find 17 other people to go with us, which is really quite doable. We could sail to Rio Dulce with a boat anchored just off shore from our hostel, which my children are voting for, but I think it's because the captain houses a ferret in his dreadlocks. Everyone and his brother will drive you anywhere, but it seems like the last best bet.
So while it's fun to plan the next leg of the trip, it requires a few days of torture, when actually executed, so as I said.....Utila is just perfect right now. I'll continue debating which color coconut tastes best, looking for sea turtles in clear blue waters, playing gin rummy while drinking gin or rum, and marveling at this sweet little island that floats, ever so cooly, in an azure bath off the coast of Honduras.
Hola Utila! Utila is the smallest of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. It's a tiny island with an even smaller little town. It’s claim to fame is it’s diving and it just happens to be the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI open water certification. We are staying at a dive hostel that provides lodging, scuba certification, all your gear, and dives. There is a little restaurant right outside our room where the kids can sit at the bar and order their fill of limeade and pancakes for very few limpiras. The upside of a hostel over a hotel is the ‘community living’ aspect. You quickly become a part of a bigger, funner community just because everyone is hanging out together on the little beach, swinging in the hammocks, or hanging out at the bar. We stay in a dorm like room. We have an entire dog network that runs up and down the main street and checks in regularly for any scraps or affection that they can find.
There is barely a street here. The main drag is more like a big sidewalk and couldn’t handle two passing cars if it had to, which is fine, because there are no cars here, just lots of tuk tuks, golf carts, motorcycles, dogs, folks and bikes…. The island is primitive, but that doesn’t say much, does it? Put it this way….I figured i’d buy a bathing suit when I got here and I figured wrong. There is no bathing suit to be bought….on an island?!? That astounds me in a good way. I hate shopping for bathing suits anyway.
I’ll be happy in my thrift store mis-matched bikini that I got, just in case, the day before we left for fifty cents. Customer Service is not really a thing here and it’s sometimes frustrating because I’m a spoiled American, but also refreshing because we’ve taken it waaaayyy too far with all of our yelping and reviewing and such.
We are here to dive and it couldn’t be better. Della is 10. She is the youngest to be certified here in several years. The entire island worked together to find her equipment that fit. They bought little tanks just for her. If you know Della you know that she’s petite and if you know scuba diving you know that the equipment is massive and heavy. Long story short, she has rocked it! She is certified and it was a ton of work and she did it. The boys are certified, too. I am so proud of them all!
Early this morning, on their first fun dive after passing all their skills, a sea turtle swam by to congratulate them.
NOTES: We are diving/staying with Captain Morgan’s Dive Center. Ask for Wit to be your instructor. The crepe place is awesome, try the wood fired pizza at Mango Inn, Trudy’s has real coffee, buy your pineapple from the guy on the street and have your children bust open the coconuts on the beach for you to drink, Rehab is a cool spot on the water to drink a beer and eat some seafood, and you can exorcise any personal demons with the locals at Skid Row.
Guatemala is nothing if not a paradox. Just when you think you might be Guatemala-ed out, it throws you an unexpected twist. Xocomil, located in the middle of nowhere, is one of the best water parks in the world. It costs next to nothing to get in....$12 American, a fortune around here, and it's rather awesome. It's so awesome that they are putting in an International airport solely for the park. It's one of the top destinations in Central and South America. There is something for everyone and state of the art technology (not something Guatemala is known for) means that some rides are almost too scary! My boys would only ride the roller coaster once! When you are atop the huge towers waiting to go down, you can see for miles in all directions. It looks like they filmed Jurassic Park here and that any moment Hu-normous Rex might come crashing out of the jungle.
The scariest ride is a vertical tube that they seal you into.They lock the door and then turn a key. It's just awful and very, very fun. A woman counts down, 3-2-1, in an eerie sci-fi voice. And the floor drops out from under you. You free fall for a long, long way through a small tube and then you are swept up vertically in a series of loops that eventually crash into a pool at the bottom.
Unless you are Della.
In her case, she dropped as she should have and shot almost, BUT NOT QUITE, up to the next huge loop. She slowed and stopped, then slid BACKWARDS back through the ride. You can sort of see people shooting though the tubes. Max was the one to sound the alarm. They were waiting at the bottom, I was at the top. Max, who has no tolerance for drama of any kind (I am raising a young version of my own father, which is funny, really) started violently shaking his head and crossing his arms back and forth. As if she didn't make the field goal attempt. Matt chimed in and the lifeguards told him to take it down a notch. It's not like his daughter was trapped in a Human Torpedo Tube?!!!!?!! Della, ever calm and practical, made her way to the light. There was a clear part of the tube that was also a door and some dude let her out.
She was/is perfectly fine and was actually excited to be able to go back and tell her story to her friend Ben, who dared her to do it in the first place. Viva Guatemala!
We've been in Xela for a month. We leave this weekend. We had a little fiesta tonight and then a graduation potluck at our school. I'm a little sad. We walk down the street and know people. We've figured out how things work around here, and I have a fair grip on Spanish. The kids have made friends, both young and old, and although school is hard, it's very rewarding. We are collectively known as the Familia Patton, which I love.
As the guide books will tell you, Xela is a real Guatemalan city. It's gritty and honest, and there is just enough splendor and antiquity amongst the mayhem to keep it all mesmerizing. I've come to appreciate everything that it throws at us. One thing that you quickly learn is that there is no room for comparisons. I can't compare Guatemala to home. It would be a disservice to both. I feel very sentimental about Guatemala. Both the people and the place grab at you in unexpected ways. As you walk down an average street there is a roller coaster of sensory assault....everyday modern life and commerce, ancient culture and women in centuries old mayan garb, baskets on head and babies on back, dog poop, flower stalls, cobblestones and motorcycles, fresh bread and pupusas, and 8 inch wide sidewalks. Life is pulsing. There is no such thing as personal space in Guatemala. If you groove on your daily habits and have strict notions as to diet and hygiene, stay home.
But I will be ready to relax a bit! This trip was very loosely planned. We knew we would go to language school. We did a bit of research (not much) and found one that felt right and fit the budget. We were lucky and it's been a perfect fit. Our apartment is above another language school, one that it is touted as the best, but from what I've heard and seen, our experience was much more intimate and family like. For those interested in the details....the name of our school is Ulew Tinimit and here's the link. We had initially contacted a Catholic monastery outside of Xela that had a language school and thought we would study there. It was cost prohibitive and now I'm so glad. While I'm sure it would have been fine, we would have been completely isolated from 'real life' in Xela. Planning from afar, it felt 'safe and familiar. But we didn't come this far to isolate ourselves and I have loved every minute of the bustle of Xela, both gritty and bonita!
We planned on taking the month of January to plan for February and February to plan for March. If you're a type A person, you might want to stop reading. Our plans change all the time. We talk with fellow travelers and glean new insight. What they loved, what they hated....In Central America, reservations are rarely necessary for hostels, buses or airplanes. It's not the way things work at this level of travel. From here we will go back to Antigua for a few days, then catch a bus to Honduras. We will stop in Copan Ruinas for a few days, then make our way to La Ceiba, where we will catch a ferry to the Bay Islands. Utilla, to be exact. We hope to get our scuba certification and catch the whale shark migration. Some of our school friends are headed in the same direction, so it should be a blast.
It's been hard writing about this trip because there is so much to say. So so so much. I will try to narrow it down and get busy, but I have a feeling that the Honduran jungle is not well-wired for internet!
As far as I know, we'll come back into Guatamala and explore the western side of things....Tikal, Semuc Champey, Livingston and the Rio Dulce. After that? Maybe El Salvador and Nicaragua, if time permits. We had planned on Costa Rico and Panama but there won't be time, and most travelers we've met don't recommend Costa Rico. Go figure. Three months is feeling like way too little time to see it all. I will say this. From here forward, our life will be different. Not sure how, but sure that it will!
Remind me to tell you about:
Going to Guatemalan Church....awesome
How Della got trapped in a narrow tube in Central America's largest water park....all's well that ends well!
The Wonders of the Guatemalan Medical System .....wish I didn't know, but I do. (unrelated to above!)
The Chicken Bus ride from hell....a story that we will be telling for the rest of our lives, Lewis in particular.
What we are reading on the road.....we are like the bookmobile!
Social Justice in Guatemala....is there any good answer....not really, but hope rules the day.
Trama...a women's collective worth your time
Where to begin? Della looks through the images on the blog and says "Mom, those are good pictures, but they don't really capture the chaos of things. For a ten year old, she's fairly astute. I wrote here about the morning wake up call. What I have come to learn is that this is the absolute norm around here. This place operates at top volume 24/7. Layer upon layer of sound. And I am down with it. HOWEVER.
HOWEVER. Gallo means rooster. And it's the freaking national bird. Not really, of course, The elusive Quetzal is the REAL national bird, but the designation should be reassigned. Gallo also happens to be the national beer, something akin to our Budweiser, and is made here in Xela. There's more to that, too, but let's stick with birds for now. The gallo, in it's many forms, is muy popular.
Our apartment is typical of any home here. We are crowded into a city block, cheek to jowl with our neighbors. There is no such thing as insulation or double paned windows. Our roof is a sheet of very thin plastic. And as you're probably aware, sound carries.
The image above is the view out our bedroom window. They are a big family. I love their poinsettia tree. And I'm sure that they're nice folks. But they raise roosters.
I'm not sure why one would raise roosters. Before bed, our first night here, Della asked about roosters and when they crow. I was imagining a bucolic farm setting with a patriarchal rooster somewhere IN THE DISTANCE. I said something poetic like "Oh, roosters are the herald of the morning; they might wake us up early."
Truer words have never been spoken.
We go to bed early. 9 ish. At 10:00 it started. They might as well have been in bed with us. The crowing alarm sounded every 20 seconds throughout the night. It's not a noise that you can acclimate to. Each and every time it jars your heart and makes you sweat
I would lie there and anticipate the next crow, then jump when it sounded. Six hours later, there was no change. I thought surely their throats must be raw and irritated, wouldn't they have to stop at some point? I'm an easy going person., but this was not working for me. I was feeling violent. I was identifying well with the term "ring your neck". But in the end, because sleep is non-negotiable and this was our new, if temporary, home I began to ponder solutions. How to silence these feathered evangelists of the night?
As I lay there, I began to hatch a plan….or at least, several viable options. Perhaps we could move our bed into the living room and the living room into the bedroom. It would be a bit of a pain, but if we closed the door to the bedroom we could create a decent sound barrier. Or, and this is where I got excited, I could make my way around the block, knock on these people’s door and offer them cold hard cash for the gallos. How much could a few Guatemalan birds cost? It could, quite possibly, be the best $10-$12 dollars ever spent. To recoup some of my money I could march right down to the parque central and sell the dang things, just like every body else in town does. This begged the question, …. how to carry several roosters several blocks? I don’t much care for pecking fowl. I especially don’t like their legs. The biggest hitch in the plan was transporting the birds, and then it hit me. This just might work. I could kill several birds with one stone, so to speak.
Negotiating with a native would require me to up my language game. AND it would be necessary to include a non-compete clause,: no more roosters for the next 30 days. My language skills would be tested and this is good.
I would also need to work on my haggling skills. I hate to haggle over prices and it’s a way of life around here. I make Della do it for me. Seriously. She is a shark. This would force me to engage in some serious negotiating.
And maybe, just maybe, after I stuffed three live roosters into my sleek backpack and schlepped them down a shabby scenic cobblestone street to a colorful Central American town square, I’d fulfill another odd goal of mine…to make the cover of the Patagonia catalog.
These roosters are my destiny.
Hasta Mañana, Amigos!
We have been in Xela for two weeks now. It feels very familiar and I have learned more in two weeks than I have in the past 20 years….about life, people, the world, and love. We moved out of our homestay and into a little apartment. The apartment is located above a different school and we are surrounded by people from all over the world. We shop and cook and wake up and go to school and then hang with friends and classmates in the afternoon. We watch Spanish TV, run to the panaderia (bakery) for fresh bread every day($1 for 12 little buns and several beautiful pastry treats), take our laundry to the lavanderia ($1.50 to have it washed, dried, and folded) and basically carry on as we would at home. I am working from afar, and the internet is fine if a little slow, so I am building websites and doing social media marketing from my little apartment. Life is totally and miraculously different, yet very much the same.
This week we changed our schooling to one on one instruction. For five hours a day, I sit, nose to nose, with my maestro, Norma. We are about the same age. She is cute and funny and despite very different backgrounds, We are fast friends and so very similar. After two short weeks of intensive instruction, I can understand most all she says. We talk of parenting, our children, what we cooked for dinner, our childhood, finances, recipes, shopping, and cultural customs. We also talk of war, poverty, social injustice, political corruption, and hope for the future. I could sit here and write of it for days. In the tiniest of nutshells, and in the interest of publishing a post in the next hour or so, Guatemala is a country in recovery. They have just recently come out of a brutal civil war that lasted for 36 years. The war ended in 1996 and there was mass genocide of the indigenous people. Entire towns were destroyed in nazi-esque ways. Norma is amazed that I know so little about it. So am I. I tell her, in my broken Spanish, best as I can, that I knew of it vaguely and from a distance, but without feeling or connection. And that here and now, I am getting it, deeply.
By far our biggest expense on this adventure is our language school. There is no way to quantify the gain. Aside from learning Spanish, we are making connections that I can hardly put into words. When you spend more than 30 hours a week with a group of people you quickly become a unit. We share a common and unique bond....we all want to learn something that is difficult and very much outside ourselves. It's the polar opposite of my normal life, which seems distant and, unfortunately, self centered.
Our schoolmates are from all over. We have group discussions, solely in Spanish, on every topic you can imagine. My kids join in and contribute and are being pushed to express themselves and interact (in Spanish) at a very high level.
I can't tell you how much we laugh. Humor is exacerbated by the language barrier. The exchanges are almost always deeply intellectual and hysterically funny. Which is good., because it's a long hard week of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, comprehension and constant study and practice. We are all eager to go each morning. My kids have been in school their entire lives, but they are opening up to what is possible if they dig into deep learning.
The reward surrounds us....the people, both Guatemalans and fellow travelers, a gorgeous window to the world and true connection.