Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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31 August 2007
Onward and upward to Belize
Several rookie mistakes, en route to a couple days of pampering
Whew, today was a travel day of a different sort. Let us count the ways:

first view of Belize from the air1. Air travel. Oh yeah, I remember that! You don't get on a bus but instead fly through the air in a pressurized metal tube. And get harassed by the petty indignities of airport passage... security screenings, higher border crossing fees, angry airport employees who resent you for your very existence, irritated sunburnt American tourists. Good times!

2. Meeting up with friends, yay! On the other end of all this fun was a rendezvous with my friends from DC, Josh and Kathryn, who ::ahem:: were the only ones brave enough to meet up with me on this junket. I was really looking forward to seeing them.

3. Someone else in charge. For the first time on this trip, I was relinquishing the project manager role and handing over all responsibility to J&K, who'd made nearly all the arrangements for the next few days.
Even though Josh had sent me all the information about the resort we'd be staying at, and various transfer details, I'd decided to just show up. It was a deliciously guilty pleasure to not know exactly what was coming next.

So, I said goodbye to Utila and Alton's, and made my way to the airport. Annie, the marvelous travel agent Alton's works with, had brilliantly booked me a direct flight from Utila to Belize City, allowing me to avoid taking the ferry to La Ceiba *and* saving me some money in the process. I LOVE this place! The taxi was a bit late, and then the guy stopped at his house for "just 20 minutes" to hang out with his wife and kid and have a cup of coffee. Ehm, excuse me? My flight leaves at 7:30! It's 7:15 now! No worries, he assured me. They'd called the airport and the flight wouldn't be leaving until 8am. The airport is "muy pequeño, muy
pequeño. Está bien." Right, I'm sure the airport is quite small, but I'm not sure what that has to do with me making my flight. But if you say so, I'm sure it'll all be fine.

We arrived at the airport -- HAH! more like a short tarmac strip with a forlorn shack at one end -- and in fact the flight didn't arrive until after 8am. I sat in the taxi for a while and got completely eaten alive by mosquitoes. One last fond farewell, thanks so much. When the plane touched down, the taxi drove over onto the tarmac and helped me load my bag in. Nobody even asked for my ticket. We just took off. Beats the hell outta the torturous security line at Dulles, I'll tell ya that!

Well, it turns out the concept of "directo" is about the same with planes as it is with buses. You may stop a few times and pick up or drop off people, but you probably won't need to change vehicles. We touched down on Roat
án, in La Ceiba, and also in San Pedro Sula before heading onto Belize. At La Ceiba we actually had to get off the plane and go through customs, immigration, and security. All at an incredibly rushed clip because the flight was about to take off again any minute! No stress there! I'd totally forgotten to save enough Lempiras (Lemmywinks!) for my exit tax and had to hit the ATM. While there I noticed that it also offered an option for dollars. Hmmmm, this might be a good time to replenish my supply of greenbacks. The Atlantic Airlines rep was hovering nervously over my shoulder so I didn't take as much time as I should have, and failed to notice that even though I selected the "dollars" option, the machine asked me for the amount in Lempiras. Rookie Mistake! So I was a bit shocked to see a big pile of Lemps come spilling out of the machine. There was a bank nearby but it wasn't open yet, and I had to get a move on. So I took my wad of Lemmywinks and hoped I'd be able to exchange it later. I still have 'em, if anybody's interested in some cambio action.

Next step was immigration, where I had to fill out the usual inane form and get a new stamp in my passport. I was once again rushed enough not to notice what page the woman had actually placed the stamp (Rookie Mistake #2! you know better by now!) and so got to stand there nervously while the security staff paged through every single sheet of my passport looking for the damn thing. And just as I was going through the security machines, I realized I'd forgotten to take out my Swiss Army Knife and pack it with my checked stuff. Rookie Mistake #3! Of course they confiscated it, which was no big deal because I can easily get another one when I return home. But it was completely unnecessary. Thank god I am sure J&K will be bringing their own corkscrew with them. ;)

Finally, I was able to get back on the plane, and there was no more drama until we reached Belize. I had a few hours to kill before Josh & Kathryn's flight arrived, so I sat up in the "Waving Gallery" and caught up on my journal entries. Or at least tried to. Didn't get very far due to a handful of distractions. First, an entire Belizean extended family gathered to wave goodbye to Auntie Somethingorother. A dozen children screaming and waving in unison. It was most amusing. Next, THE biggest bug I have ever seen (even bigger than the cucarachisima in Tortuguero, people!) flipped over on its back on the ground in front of my picnic table. I don't know what this thing was, some kind of beetle or something. Its flat back looked like a huge brown leaf, at least three inches long and almost as wide. Its creepy hairy legs wiggled furiously in the air, as it attempted futilely to right itself. I couldn't take my eyes off it, and I couldn't believe nobody else noticed it. The Belizean family tromped around it, oblivious. I was sure some small child would accidentally get too close and have his or her foot swallowed whole by this monstrosity. After a few minutes, I was almost rooting for the thing to get upright just so I could see what the hell it was. Alas, a guy noticed it and scooped it up between two pieces of cardboard and took it away. Bummer.

And finally it was time for the flight from Miami to arrive. I waited with all the other anxious family members, hoping to get a glimpse of my friends so I could wave to them as they walked from the plane into the airport. Unfortunately I didn't get to wave like an idiot because they didn't look in my direction, but I did manage to give them each a huge hug and kiss once they made it through immigration and customs. Yaaaaaaay! Friends from home! It was a bit surreal to have these two worlds collide in the middle of the Belize City airport. But I was thrilled to see them.

the pool at White Sands Cove is to DIE for We hopped a quick Mayan Island Air flight to Ambergris Caye and were greeted by a taxi from our resort. Following a quick supermarket stop (gotta stock up on wine, don'cha know) we caught a private boat to White Sands Cove, an absolutely beautiful resort on the northern end of the Caye. Those of you who have been following along with my adventures will understand when I tell you just how exciting it was to have a hot shower with actual hot water! Not to mention two, count 'em, two fluffy towels to use after said shower. And a whole different set of beach towels! Plus, water that could be drunk directly from the tap. Oh, the luxury of it all. Yes, this'll do.
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

30 August 2007
Scuba heaven

Unless you are a scuba geek like me, you'll probably not appreciate the utter bliss of the past week. Thirteen dives in six days, friends and neighbors! I have been in scuba heaven. The rhythm of the day would go a little something like this:

* Get up early, which, as I've mentioned, you pretty much can't avoid in this part of the world. Sun comes up, it's time to get outta bed!

* Amble over to the Snack Shack next to the dock for a bagel and coffee. Get amiably harassed by (or sometimes do the harassing of) Jeff and other insane Alton's staff.

* Check out scuba gear and set up kit on the dock.

* Head out for a two-tank trip to see the most amazing marine life, including huge parrotfish, turtles, drumfish, gigantic French and Queen angelfish, the occasional shark, and so much more I don't even have room to list it all here. Dive with incredibly competent, knowledgable, and fun divemasters, and a great group of fellow divers. Occasionally do something really cool like spot two scorpionfish on your own during the same dive. (I rock!) Come back and log dives, with barely even enough room on the page to list everything we just saw.

* Enjoy lunch at the snack shack.

* Chill out on the dock, occasionally going in for a dip to see the cool fish and crabs that hang out under and around the dock, often taking a nap in the hammocks, and sometimes motivating down the street to check email.

* Celebrate happy hour and the sunset with the rest of the crew. If lucky, listen to Martin's valiant attempt to play the guitar missing a string. Watch Jim and Jamie try to toss each other off the dock. Listen to Adam's incredible fish tales.

* Go across the street to RJ's for some barbecue or down the road somewhere for other cheap and tasty treats. Discuss the day's incredible adventures as well as past and future travel plans with other cool peeps.

* Hit the sack and get ready for another amazing day tomorrow.

Complete and utter bliss, I tell ya. And a restorative and recuperative way to spend the past week. I feel ready to take on Central America again!


Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

24 August 2007
A week of cheap scuba in Utila

Yesterday I arrived in Honduras with a group of folks I met in Livingston, Guatemala. We are all going to be spending the next few days on the Bay Island of Utila, enjoying the cheapest dive rates in the world. However, Internet access is fairly pricey here, so I'm not sure how many updates I'll be able to squeeze in, but stay tuned as always!

The hurricane, by the way, had absolutely no effect on my travels, except for a big thunderstorm that knocked out power for the evening. (Which just meant we had to do our drinking by candlelight.) It did a number on Belize, though, which is where I'm supposed to head next. Hopefully by next week they'll have at least restored power and most other services. Fingers crossed!

Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments

Island Time!
And let the scuba begin

I was really glad we'd agreed to push all the way to La Ceiba, instead of stopping someplace earlier along the way. That put us close to the ferry, so it was easy to make the 9:30am to Utila. We did have to find some breakfast, and reluctantly stopped at a Dunkin Donuts as it seemed to be the only place open. A guilty pleasure involving air conditioning, decent coffee, and some grease & sugar. Breakfast of champions!

ferry from La Ceiba to UtilaThe ferry ride to Utila was quite pleasant, although there were lots of people yarking over the side and in the one functioning bathroom. We arrived at the dock and walked into a sea of touts promoting the various dive shops and hotels on the island. I'd pretty much decided on Alton's, after some really strong recommendations from my Guatemalan CS host Percy and a few other travelers. Matt wanted to check out Captain Morgan's, so we did that as well. They didn't have good answers to a few of Matt's tough questions, while the Alton's rep did (good job, Jim!), plus Alton's offered accommodations as well. OK, Alton's it is!

Alton's dock and roomsthe view from the rooms... sweeeeeetIt was a bit of a hike to Alton's with our bags, but it turned out to be an absolutely perfect choice. Rooms right on the dock where the dive boats left from, shop and office right there, small bar/snack shack on the dock as well. And such cool fabulous people! Staff and fellow divers alike. Good peeps, great vibe. The rooms were your typical dorm jobbers, and I got bunked with two friendly German girls named Julia and Sara. Matt & Helen got a double right next door, and Evan was in the next door down. The neighborhood is complete! Once we settled in and did all our paperwork and chose our various dive packages, courses, etc, it was time to hop off the dock and go for a quick swim. Then a nice cold beverage as the sun set. Ahhhhhh, life is good, indeed!


Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
23 August 2007
Many modes of transport, and a Honduran border clown
Couldn't make this s**t up if I tried
Whew! A long-ass travel day! But fortunately I had three fabulous companions for this journey, as Matt, Helen & Evan were also planning to head to Honduras at the same time. I've been really lucky to meet up with the right people at the right time. It makes crazy travel days such as these a bit easier to take.

The first adventure was trying to find a way to get some cash, so we could all take care of our tabs at the Iguana. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, just hit up one of the ATMs in town. But power was still down from the previous night's storm, and not expected to return until the afternoon. We needed to get an early ferry to get started on our multi-pronged journey. Hm.

We walked into town to see what was shakin', figuring we should be able to at least go into a bank and extract some Quetzales that way. Along the way we checked both of the ATMs on the main road. Both had power, which was great, but both also displayed the "No funciona" message indicating they were outta service. Not so great. Evan and I waited for the bank to open while Helen walked back to get her other card. I've been pretty fortunate in that my debit/Visa card has worked with just about every ATM machine so far, but that's not always the case with cards from other countries. The bank actually opened around 9am, and they must have rebooted something because the ATM started working as well. We had no hope of getting the 9:30 ferry, but at least we'd be able to pay our room/bar tabs and catch the 11am boat. This is progress!

Livingston portAfter settling up and saying some sad goodbyes to the Iguana staff -- gonna miss those guys! this was another fabulous place to stay -- we packed up and headed for the port. We caught the 11am ferry to Puerto Barrios with no trouble, and it was actually a very enjoyable one-hour journey. Traveling by boat is so much more fun than land-based options! When we landed in Puerto Barrios, we were immediately swarmed by touts offering directos to Corinto, our next stop along the way. We still needed to find a bank for Helen, plus we figured we could handle the local buses instead of the tourist shuttles, so we shook 'em off (took a while, they are persistent buggers!) and found our way to a bank. From there, it was a matter of heading in the direction of the market and we soon found a micro heading for Honduras. Crammed into the van with two dozen locals, our bags securely (we hoped) lashed to the roof, we headed for the border.

The first stop was migración in the town of Entre Ríos. We were expecting to have to pay something, but the ayudante merely took our passports (always a little scary to let your passport out of your possession, even for a short while) and we stayed in the car. A few minutes later, we were off again. OK. We drove a bit further and got to the Honduras border. End of the line! It was just a barren stretch of asphalt, like an empty mall parking lot, with a flat concrete building on the other side. We marched across the border, presented our passports and $3, and once again I had to explain the situation with the stamp on the Dreaded Page 11, and then we were off.

this is it???Ehm, OK, now what? According to the book, Corinto, which is the closest town, where we were supposed to catch a bus to Puerto Cortés. As we walked towards a small area with snack vendors and taxis, we noticed a figure heading towards us. He was wearing funny clothes... a strange Honduran fashion statement? And big floppy shoes. What the... Sure enough, as he approached, we noticed we was wearing face paint and carrying a big trash bag full of... well, full of god knows what strange clown accessories one carries over the border between Guatemala and Honduras. Just when you think you've seen it all. A Honduran border clown. Dear me.

Anyway, after gathering our wits (as much as possible in a situation like this) and exchanging some Quetzales for Honduran Lempiras (which I can't help but think of as Lemmywinks) we headed towards the bus. Turns out this particular one was heading all the way to Puerto Cortés. Sweet! We piled our stuff on board, and after grabbing a few snacks, hopped on the bus along with the clown and an albino ayudante. All we needed was a fat lady or a midget, and we'd have ourselves one helluva circus. But I digress. As in Guatemala, the bus was a revamped US school bus, but seemed much much larger than its Guatemalan counterparts. Not only was there a bit of legroom, but we each had our own seats! Oh, the luxury!

At Puerto Cortés we easily caught a bus heading to San Pedro Sula, the next stop on our journey. And this bus, more of a shuttle even though it was public transport, was pretty cushy. Even had air conditioning! Swoon! Unfortunately there was no roof rack so we had to smush our bags in the aisles. But otherwise it was a very swank ride indeed.

Finding the right bus in the sprawling noisy lot at San Pedro Sula proved a bit more challenging. But we employed the tried-and-true method of wandering around looking lost and asking for help, and eventually we got pointed in the direction of the bus to La Ceiba. OK, last vehicle of the day! Whew! It was a 3-hour ride to La Ceiba, and the bus looked like it'd be pretty comfortable, with reclining seats and everything. But it was hot as an oven on that thing. The last leg was a lonnnnnnng one.

We finally arrived in La Ceiba, and after a bit of mucking around, finally found a hotel. We got a basic and fairly clean room for all four of us, and sacked out early. What a day. Tomorrow, the Islands!
Posted by soniaz at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments