Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flowers of Pine Ridge District, Belize

Flowers seen in Belize and Guatemala, on tours and around our hotel.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Belize and Guatemala Hotels - Shell-a-phone

Ingrid found a group of hotels, two in Belize and the third in Guatemala, all with the same owner and a great reputation. There are no phones in the rooms, only an intercom system to contact the front desk. The intercom is called a "Shell-a-phone." We got endless amusement re-purposing the teenager expression, "talk to the hand" as modified for the situation, we would say, "talk to the shell."

...maybe you had to be there to find it as funny as we did...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dangriga, Belize - Chaleanor Hotel

I arrived in Dangriga, Belize on the worst possible day of the year to try to find a room for the night. Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates when 6 boats left the island of St. Vincent and landed on the shores of Belize at Dangriga as the sun rose on November 19th. The party starts on the evening of November 18th and continues all night, until down when a reenactment of the boats arrival. Drum bands play all night and dancing breaks out on each street corner. The next day everyone is exhusted and heading to their hotel room to repair. I missed the party as I was in the capital on November 18th, but did get to watch the parade on the 19th.

After a late lunch of spiced chicken, Belkin beer and a traditional pantain based composite (it hard to describe the condensed mash...) I began a search for a place to spend the night. After passing on a dorm room at a back packer hostel I found myself in front of the Chalenor Hotel. A man appears on the second story balcony:
Chad: "You are looking for a room?"
Me: "Yes!"
Chad: "Sorry, we are all full up."
Me: "I have an idea. You have a flat roof and I have a tent."
Chad: "OK, you can stay on the roof. $8.00"

$8.00 Belize dollars is $4.00 USD. I would share the rooftop with two young Canadian guys that were sleeping in hammocks. Chad doesn't usually allow clients to stay on the roof, but during Garifuna Settlement Day the hotels are full, so he relaxes his rules.

With the assistance of Chad's grandsons I moved my bags up to the roof. Chad plans to make the roof a bar/lounge. For the next two day I would call it home, along with my roof mates.

Dangriga is a hard place to sleep until you get used to it. You think roosters start crowing at sunrise, when in fact they start in the middle of the night.
Over the next two days I discovered that Chad is one of the world's nicest guys. He and his wife own the hotel, which he claims he simply manages. Do expect to camp out at the Chalenor Hotel, Chad let me stay on the roof for a second night, because I was already set-up. The hotel offers free Wi-fi internet access, which I used it for much of the second day that I was in Dangriga, camping out in the lobby and catching up with email.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dead of the Dead Alter

November 1-8, 2008 - My personal alter

The Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico is a time to visit with the departed. Food and favorite items are arranged with flowers and candles for those that have passed on to enjoy. Water is placed on the alter to quench the thirst of the dead that have travel far to be with the living.It is a very different way of communing with the dead.

In memory of Tom Ackerman, a jump drive with software provided for his amusement. An egg was laid out for my mother-in-law, Ilse. The race car is for my father, who loved stock car and Indy racing. The nuts are from the Mexican version of Halloween. Young people sign and dance in return for simple treats like these nuts. My niece and I sang "Yankee Doodle" with strips of paper napkins hanging from my eye lids and from her upper lip to earn our treat.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Into the Yukan

Oaxaca, Mexico

I head out of Oxaca on Thursday afternoon, immediately after my 9th Spanish class, pretty much on schedule. I find my way out of town and onto the highway. The route to Belize can be done in different ways, such as through challanging mountian roads, but I'm interested to get there quickly and in one piece, to met with people in the Belize Ministry of Health and then join Ingrid down the coast a few days later. The plan, take the toll roads, the longer in miles, but shorter in time and easier on the motorcycle. To see the route in detail click here and you will be transported to Microsoft's mapping service, Maps Live. The mapping service has gotten better since I hit the road. Now multiple waypoints can be combined to create a more complicated route. Once the route is calculated, the waypoints can be downloaded to a GPS. Cool beans.

Cordoba, Mexico

After a ride though the mountain ranges and over the divide, into moist and lush eastern Mexico, I spend one night in Cordoba, Mexico. Dinner was found at resteruant just off the park in the center of town. A dance competition was under way in the park. Not much to say, found a hotel, slept, got upthe next day and hit the road. Breakfast at a road side, tacos and coffee, the breakfast of champions. Now it just miles, as many as I can cover in one sunny day. As I cross the state of Tabasco the weather is great, I got an early start, and everything is dandy. Music in my ears, no worries, then in the middle of no where, doing ~60 miles per hour in the left lane, out from the elephant grass filled medium strolls a dog. He causally walk out right in front of me. I hit the brakes, not an emergency stop, but enough speed was lost and the dog's attention was gained...a close call. For me and the dog.

The balance of the day rolled on, citys passed by, swamps and lakes appear and recide. Afternoon turned in evening and now I'm into the Yukan and no immediate place to stay. I push on into the evening to reach Escárcega. The land is low lying and the bugs come out in mass at night. I had to stop more than once to clean off my face shield.

Escárcega, Mexico

I hit town and found a cyber cafe. Checked in with Ingrid via Skype, grabbed email and head out to find lodging for my and the motorcycle. I simple enough hotel was secured and bite to eat is next. I like to go to places that are patronized with locals and busy. My second round of tacos, dinning with couples, families and a cowboy. This rocks. To end a perfect day I am looking for a beer, but first some background.

My motorcycle license plate spells "AMEGA", the gender specific Spanish for friend. Motorcycles are feminine. Quick history, the last person, Ed Cumberson, to cross the Darien Gap (the rain forest between Panama and Columbia) rode a BMW with the license plate, AMEGO. He wrote in the book that documented his achievement, and notes that the gender was incorrect, motorcycles are feminine. I thought of naming the bike MLC (for mid-life crises) and when the topic comes up in conversation I quick agree. The motorcyle is cheaper than a red convertible and less taxing on my marriage than a mistress...but I digress. AMEGA becomes her official name, license plate and everything. Across the street from the taco joint I find a bar called, "El Amego Peter Bar." That is too funny in my book, so I go in and have a quick cold one.

Its an amusing bar, filled with locals having a screaming good time. Popcorn is tossed and banter flows. On my way out of the bar I stop and talk briefly to the owner. No surprise, his name is Peter. I show him my motorcycle registration and he gets it, smiles all around.

The next day I stop back at the bar to take a picture of the sign. The owner is there openning up. This time I show him the license plate and in a moment he invites me into the bar, then disappears into the back. He emerges with blue cotten polo shirt, repleat with the bar name and logo. Two beers on me to celibrate the joys of being Peter. I took a picture of his ink as well, which matches the logo on the shirt. The "CA" stands for Central America, which is imposed over a soccer ball, or football as they call it here.

Another sunny day and I'm headed east towards northern Belize. My route will take me north of Guatemala, so I don't have to cross into and then out of a border. Each crossing takes time and sometimes there are fee. Hassles are always the case when crossing a frontier, best to avoided when possible.

Less than an hour out of Escárcega I am not feeling well. The traveler’s blues that has been bugged me, on and off, ever since I arrived in Oaxaca. Currently my digestive track is going through a slow twisting motion. There is no getting around or postponing this call or nature. Finding a turn off into the woods I pull over and answer the call. Evidence strongly suggests that this particular spot has proven convenient to others. For the balance of the afternoon I slowed down the pace. While I was feeling better, I was somewhat drained. I mention this because the subtle slow down would have a larger impact later that same day.

Now running low on gas I am looking forward to reaching Xupjil, Campeche, Mexico, the next point on the map. I ride around this sizable town and can’t find a gas station to save my life. How can a town this large not have a ready supply of petroleum? I determine to get food, chill out and get direction. The waitress at the restaurant had no patience for the likes of me and my struggling language skills. I comprised and order chicken tostadas, when I was really want chicken soup. I was close in my description, but she must have seen one too many tour buses roll in that week and wasn’t in the mood to work for yet another tourist that was mangling her native language. I got through it all, got directions to a gas station in the bicycle/hardware shop next door and hit the road. It turns out the PEMEX is 5 kilometers away, in the middle of nowhere. From the center of town it’s 10 kilometers, there and back. It seems to me that the remote location adds to the overall sales of gas, because each purchase requires a 10 kilometer trip to fill up.

At times I’m traveling by braille. A quick glance at the map and I assumed that Chetumal, Mexico is the most northern town in Belize. Turns out it is the southernmost Mexican town on the Belize border. I arrived on the outskirts around 5:00 PM, got my bearings, made a U-turn and headed south to toward Belize. Riding a motorcycle it is acceptable to cut to the head of the line, it’s just that way in Latin America and I am all for it. I find the typical chaos of a border town, like going to Las Vegas, except the streets are narrow, there are few signs and people milling about everywhere. Finding the booth to surrender my Mexican tourist card (it’s more like a form than a card) was no problem. I asked where to have my motorcycle import permit canceled and got vague instructions. I proceed and before I knew it I was in Belize. Alright I’m here, so I got my tourist visa, and the temporary import permit for the motorcycle. In Belize, an official goes out to the bike and checks the VIN number. If you time it just right, like I did, at 6:00 PM they take the Belize flag down and everyone with a uniform stops dead in their tracks and faces the flag pole. Nothing moves until the flag was down, folded and being carried away. The border officials take patriotism very seriously. I’m digging it.

International borders are unique. You legal status only makes sense to those that know the rules, and then there is some wiggle room. I failed to get my Mexican temporary motorcycle import permit canceled, so I turned back from Belize and return to Mexico. It will be a huge hassle down the road, mostly when passing through Mexico on the return leg if I don’t have my Mexican permit canceled. So I go back over the bridge and find out that the office to cancel a permit is the same office when you request a permit when arriving from Belize. The permit window is on the northbound side, which is an arrangement efficient for the Mexican officials, but the lack of signage is confusing to the uninitiated. Before finding the permit window I am advised that the office is closed, and it might not be open on Sunday. It gets even better, Monday is holiday in Mexico; I might have to wait until Tuesday to cancel my motorcycle permit and cross the frontier into Belize. It’s like hitting the trifecta at the race track, only in reverse. No getting around it, I will spend another night in Mexico.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Belize City

Belize City, Belize

I returned to the Mexico/Belize border on Sunday late morning. Having turned in my tourist card the night before, I no won't have the form to surrender, again. There was some discussion and finally the official that collects the tourist cards allows me to pass. I had gone into Belize the night before and cleared Belize customs and acquired a (free) motorcycle permit. Now all I have to do is wait for a couple from Belize to get their Mexican vehicle permits, which took about an hour...canceling my motorcycle permit took 2 minutes. I cross the border and buy insurance for the motorcycle. Before I leave Belize my paper work is check no less than three times in various parts of the country. Insurance is very serious stuff in Belize. Not have coverage can bring a fine of $1000 and jail time.

About an hour later I am navigating the streets of Belize. Naturally I find the worst section of town. I try to find the good part of town, but it is never clear to me. I think I was close, near the north part, but in the end Belize City is not the best example of the country. I stop at a seaside park, buy a "Shrimp Box" lunch of rice and shrimp, and start reading Lonely Planet for tips and to locate a hotel. There is a heavy Caribbean influence, with lots of Rastafarian wannabes. The scene on the street is fairly aggressive and tiring. I was eager to move on.

Driving around I never find the first hotel and finally settle on the Sea Guest House. Run by boys from Bangladesh, is a bit thread worn and over priced. In the photo it's hard to see, but the dog on the road is checking out a dead rat. Nice.

Later that night I go out to find a dinner. It's Sunday night and almost everything is closed. I cross the Swing Bridge and follow the sound of music to Mike's Place, a reggie karaoke and pool bar. I settle in at the bar, order a Belkin (the national beer) and enjoy "pumpkin pie" which is closer to a bread than what we know of as pie. They are playing snooker, the game with three balls, not the lind of pool more common in the US, with pockets and 8 balls. These guys are really good, so I skip the chance to embarrass myself.
“People here have one job, not three. They don’t have much money. They are all happy.”
(from a conversation at Mike's Place)
Next next morning I return to the Swing Bridge, to take a picture of Mike's Place and find breakfast. Sitting on the back deck over looking the Swing Bridge I notice a film crew capturing footage of the bridge. They are students from Montreal, Canada working on a documentary about Belize. We will cross paths no less than three times in Belize. At the restaurant where I'm getting breakfast, a waitress gave me advice, I should move my camera from the back to my front, because some locals are “spicy” and might take the camera. I was saddened to receive the caution, but loved the language. The locals are a bit tough here and the south city is poor. All told, I had no problems in Belize City.

I expected Belize City to be the capital of Belize, but find the government has mostly moved to Belmopan, an hour west. Time to pack up and go soon as I can clear the driveway which is now blocked by a car. Spent over 30 minutes looking for the owner and finally scrapped my luggage and two bumpers as I left. Oh well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Base Camp Oaxaca"

November 12
“Base Camp Oaxaca”

It's 5000 feet above sea level and like the better know base camp at the foot of Mount Everst, I am readying myself for the next leg of the trip south. There are at least three large cathedrals in Oaxaca, several museums and art galleries are town. My focus was on work for this leg, so sadly I didn't take in much in the way of culture, except language. I staged myself in Oaxaca for 2 weeks, primarily taking Spanish classes and setting up logistics for the next phase, to Belize.

Ingrid and I are meeting in Belize for a 10 day vacation; her work schedule influenced my itinerary and allowed me to lay over in Oaxaca for an extra week.

My niece Kelly has been living in Oaxaca and working at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. It was the natural place for me to take classes. The price was great, my fellow classmate fun and the teacher, Betty, was the best.

I took 9 days of classes, but I learned lots of vocabulary and how to conjugate a few verbs. I am understanding more Spanish, but piecing everything together into a semi-complicated sentence is still a challenge. Fortunately, I know how to order beer and for the locatio of hte bathroom. I need more down time to study and to transcribe my notes.

[Kelly and Abraham]

My niece, Kelly is dating an great guy named Abraham. He is an actor here in Oaxaca and is involved in the management of a non-profit theater company. As an actor is is very successful; recently he was in three plays at the same time. On October 31st we travel to the hill on the edge of town and had dinner with Abrahams family. We had hot chocolate made as they do in Oaxaca with water, and big chucks of dry, crumbly bread that you dip into the hot chocolate. We feasted on homemade tamales, and chicken with their own black mole sauce. It was amazing. Apparently mole sauce is made over the course of several days. It a true labor of love, and the love maked the food taste out of this world.

I don’t know enough to describe recent Oaxaca civil history, but observed “revolutionary” posters and several gatherings of Communist groups in the town center. Che is really big here. You see t-shits everywhere with his image and book stalls are loaded with books about his life.

[Let there be Salsa!]
There are a fair number of "punk fashion folks" here. Then there are salsa bars and a few edgy water holes as well. Kelly's favorite bar is also mine. I call it “Bar 1, 2, 3” or “Triple Bar” because it’s three bars that have doorways from one establishment to the other. On one end is a rock club with live bands. At the other end is a hipster/Goth bar. In the middle is best described as a college coffee house environment that serves drinks and various milk shake concoctions. The middle bar, La Fandango, supplies board games and features a large map of Mexico that I studied several times to plan the next leg of the trip.

One Friday night we went out to Café Central for live music, drinking and dancing. I was knocked out by a group called the Dolomites. It is basically Israeli singer/performer, based in Japan, that picked up a goovin Mexican band and is touring the Americas. The sound was modeled after Tom Waits. It was a total unexpected event. We partied late into the night dancing and hanging out, finally wobbling home in the small hours of the night.

Thursday, early afternoon, I left Oaxaca immediately after Spanish class. Here are photos of the landscape that I was too pressed for time to capture on my way into town. The mesas remind me of the Grand Cayon, only on a smaller scale. The Zona Cactus. At first there was one cactus, then more and more, until they were everywhere. This puppies are as tall as telephone poles!

Who would think there are snow capped peaks in Mexico? I started wondering if anyone have tried skiing or snow boarding these slopes.

Soon after I passed this mountain I climbed and then crossed over a ridge. The environment was completely different on the other side. Now I am above the clouds, where before there weren't any. There is lush vegetation everywhere. I am entering a completely different part of Mexico.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Day of the Dead photos

Click to view more photos of Oaxaca's Day of the Dead and other photos.

Day of the Dead Photos

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey Mexico

10/27/2008 - Day 08

US / Mexico border

In Laredo I picked up liability insurance, cashed traveler’s checks, and exchanged dollars for pesos. I got great advice at a Texas tourist info center on where to find liability insurance in Laredo and how to avoid traffic on my return leg.

1:15 PM
"Hey Buff, it's Peter, I'm in Texas about to cross the border into Mexico!."
"Out of sight man."
"Yeah, I'm going to get through the paper work, tourist card, and temporary import permit for the motorcycle on the other side and put as much distance as possible between me and border, as quickly as possible."
"What are you --Butch Cassidy?"
I crossed the bridge and immediately am in a different world, one where I am the visitor, the tourist, the alien. The visual overload confusing and traffic was congested. It reminded me of Puerto Rico and a few streets in the South Bronx’s.

Crossing the border I was waved through the declaration check point. The first 50 miles sound of the border is a "free trade zone" there you don't need paperwork for you vehicle. If you go further south there are check points where officials check for the sticker. I found the office got my tourist card and temporary permit sticker for AMIGA. Windows 1, 3, and 4.

Now back out in the parking lot where I left the motorcycle parked near security guard and start organizing my paperwork. Where is the temporary import stick? Returned to Window 4, where the clerks are smiling and waving the permit sticker I had forgotten at the window…

The Garmin Mexico map isn’t very detailed for the section of Mexico that I am traveling, but get the job done, mostly. The bike icon is offset from the road. Need to call Garmin to see if it a matter of calibrating the device or is that simply the way it works.

As I got into the edge of town I pull over for gas, but learned that they were out. A few miles down the road I passed a gas station on the other side of the road. I didn’t turn back…there has to be another gas station soon. Anyway, I’ve got a half a tank of gas. Between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey Mexico, there is a long and lonely stretch of dessert. The road goes over two small mountains. On the second mountain the engine started losing power; I'm running out of gas. I pulled over and poured gas from a small aluminum bottle. Everything is honky dory again. Unfortunately the bottle doesn’t hold much gas.

Its dusk, the sun is setting and as the lights of Monterrey came into view I ran out of gas. Now it’s dark, I’m out of gas on the side of the road and it’s my first day in Mexico. Cars are flying by and no one is even slowing down. After a few minutes Miguel comes to my rescue. I ask to siphon gas, but Miguel says there is a special trap that “protects” the tank from siphoning. I try anyway, until it is obvious that I will kill myself before getting any gas from his car.

I strip the bag off of the bike and we scream to the first PEMEX. Pump gas into several bottles and started to head back to the bike. Yikes! The bottles are leaking! Gas is collecting in the plastic bag and has spilled into my helmet. We stop, get rid of the bag, tighten the bottle, and race back to the bike. AMIGA is still there, safe and sound. Miguel won’t take my offer to buy him dinner or any kind of money. I give him a VistA Tour business card and thank him profusely, offering to buy him a drink if he ever gets to NYC.

Worked my way through Monterey and found a business hotel for the night. I decide to treat myself, pay a bit more by have a low stress place to sleep for the night. Across the highway there is the Mexican version of a 7-11 Store, called OXXO. I buy a loaf of bread, Virginia ham, cheese and a beer. Internet service not working at the hotel...

Sunrise Monterrey

10/28/200 - Day 09

Made it to San Luis Potosi before nightfall. The last hour rode through the clouds, cold to the bone. Drove around the town center and asked a policeman for direction to the hotel – in Spanish! Now happy as a clam in my wonderfully overheated hotel room.

The next morning I returned to the city center and take a few pictures of the church. The stone work is amazing. No time to lose, but I will certainly stop and top off the gas tank and add air to my tires. The bike is surviving the bumps better with more air in them.

The goal is to get to the other side of Mexico City, to Puebla by late afternoon. Foolishly I took the highway that passes Mexico City and hit rush hour. The roads are not marked well and what I think should be major roads are closer to city streets. I got mixed up a few times, run into serious congestion several times and road construction… I saw the airport and other side streets that weren’t on my itinerary. Simply making a u-turn took 10-20 minutes in some instances.

As I first got to the edge of Mexico City I needed to find a bathroom, but planned to get to the other side and stop at a gas station. Traveling alone it is difficult to walk away from the fully loaded motorcycle, so I try to pick a gas station on the edge of town, without lots of people hanging around... Little did I know that would be 2.5 hours before I would find that bathroom. I finally climbed a mountain southeast of town and stopped at a strip of shops. I waived to the staff of a restaurant and found the “sanitary room” to great relief.

An hour later I’m navigating the streets of Puebla, looking for what is now my favorite hotel chain, CityExpress. I passed my first “love hotel”, but that is not what I wanted! I decide to try the Holiday Inn, but all they have is a room in the “smoking zone”, no thanks. I head back the center of town and finally hire a taxi to take me to the CityExpress hotel.