Missteps in Mexico

First day out, I realize–and Dude also realizes–we have a Major Issue on our hands. Turns out the feeding thing his mom was worried about was a more extreme situation than we’d realized. (Those of you with teenagers apparently know this already, but I was going in blind.)

Dudelet (okay, let’s call him Derek) needed food, massive quantities, every hour on the hour. He was like a battery-operated toy that would run down and become comatose in the back seat of the rental car if we didn’t stop every few blocks and buy him a meal large enough to feed three families.

Dude (ok, let’s call him Scott) and I took turns, yelling at each other “It’s YOUR turn to feed it!”

Not only did we have the rigorous feeding schedule to attend to, we (the adults) lost his trust early on, shortly after our plane landed. It took a lot of calories to win back that trust.

See, Scott was driving and I was navigating. But it was about 7 a.m. and neither of us had had coffee. I was attempting to navigate us to a highway exit that would take us deeper into the interior of the Yucatan, and far, far, really far away from Cancun.

Instead, I got us lost in the slums of western Cancun. (Never one to pass up a teachable moment, I yelled to the backseat, “Derek, look out your window so you can see the poor people.” Checkmate, Auntie!)

We encountered a flooded intersection, and attempted to drive through it. Except under the water, there was a giant trough, in which we submerged the entire vehicle, sending a wave of water over the hood and roof and soaking some vital part that made the car run. The car made it out of the ditch on sheer momentum. And promptly died.

“Hi Derek! Good morning, and welcome to Mexico, with two utterly irresponsible adults who not only got lost within an hour of landing, we’ve now managed to destroy a rental car, all without even leaving Cancun.”

He put in his earbuds and sunk into a betrayed, horrified silence, eating the bag of sugary baked goods we’d snagged at a nearby bakery and desperately tossed into the backseat. He was surely pondering the miserable week that lay before him and the unfairness of a life about to be cut short by the two lamest grownups ever.

As we push started the car (at every stoplight) and limped it back to the rental agency, I pondered how, exactly, this might play back at the family farmstead. I couldn’t imagine it would go well, and swore on the spot that he would be so well fed for the rest of the trip, the memory of this first impression would be obliterated.

I watched as Scott proceeded to the rental desk, and announced in serviceable Spanish, “El coche esta muerto.” The woman at the desk let him go on in his broken Spanish, as did I. At that point, I’m thinking he’s explaining this fiasco as well as I could; he’s got this. In contrast, he’s thinking (he told me later), “WTF, the dumbass who actually speaks Spanish isn’t saying anything, so I’ll just do my best to fix this mess.” And the woman at the counter was thinking, “Wow, I’ll just let this guy go on for a while, then whip out my grammatically perfect English after he’s exhausted himself.” Which she did.

And that’s what happened on Day 1. Oh, and we fed the teenager. A lot.

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Traveling with a Teenager

On one of my all-time favorite trips, I took one of my younger cousins with me. He was always curious about the places I traveled, and he and I had developed a tradition of poring over atlases and talking about geography, culture, and more. He’s one of the people in my family I felt understood (and shared) my fascination with travel and discovery.

I employed bribery: “Dudelet,” (because he hated when I called him that), “If you get a 3.0 this semester, I’ll take you somewhere with me.”

So, Dudelet got the grades, and we decided to go to Mexico. And that’s how I found myself traveling with a 16-year-old, 6-foot-tall eating machine.

His mom, remarkably, didn’t seem very worried about sending him off with me. I think of this as either a great compliment, or extremely foolish on her part.

We sat down with guidebooks and maps. He wanted to see Chichen Itza and the other Mayan ruins. Together we charted a route around the Yucatan, visiting places I’d never seen myself. We went over important Spanish words he needed to know: gracias, por favor, una cerveza mas por favor, etc.

His mom came to me with two requests: First, she wanted him to see “poor people.” Real ones. I assured her he would see poor people–really, truly poor people–everywhere we went. That, in fact, he would be bombarded by poverty at every turn. She hasn’t traveled much, and therefore looked at me as if she didn’t quite believe me. (She also, to my knowledge, has never driven through Alabama, which would be comparable.)

Her second request was that I make sure he got enough food.

What? Of course, I’ll feed him. I mean, What kind of cousin do you think I am? Dudelet will have all the burritos and churros and shit he can eat. What’s the big deal?

She kept reinforcing this. Worrying that he wasn’t taking enough money for food. I reassured her–cheap food, lots of it, headed his way.

Relax, Auntie. I got this.

Just a few days before we left, my friend and travel buddy (“Dude”) called me up. He wanted to join us. I asked Dudelet and he agreed. I thought it would actually be good for Dudelet to have an actual Dude on the trip. Since I have no fucking idea, I realized as I thought it, what I’m doing taking a 16-year-old boy to Mexico. I did not share this realization with anyone, because I was already committed and I was mostly confident that I could figure it out.

So, Dude, Dudelet, and I set off to see a little poverty, eat some cheap burritos, and poke around some crumbly old ruins.

Continued…

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A Brief Interlude in St. Martin/Sint Maarten

Sitting on the cozy covered patio, watching a rainstorm roll in from across the bay, and scratching idly at my many no-see-um bites. A one-eared cat we’ve named Van Gogh keeps me company. Bliss. Well, sort of.

I’ve always said everywhere has its own rhythm, special magic. But I don’t really see the magic here. I mean, you really can’t argue with general island ambience. But this is one of the first places I’ve ever been that I don’t even feel inspired to find out much more about. Even with the tropical humidity, it seems bone-dry, arid, desert like–very much like Baja. I know that some people find this type of geography beautiful, but I don’t. The obligatory signs “Welcome to Paradise!” just lack credibility.

Ah, look. I’m not going to completely diss the place–there’s some good stuff here, too. It just isn’t for me.

Most of the island’s water is desalinated seawater, which is actually better for the feckless traveler–much less likely to be contaminated. But then, 85% of its food is imported, its economy is–or appears to be–100% tourism based. Cruise ships descend every few days, vomiting out hordes of sunburnt, fat Americans, who descend on the shops like a plague of locusts, buying up cheap knickknacks (made in China, of course!), jewelry, electronics. Every shop has signs proclaiming “duty free!” There’s no culture here–well, there is, but it is the culture of the almighty dollar. Basically, I’ve decided that sitting on our quiet little patio, with an oceanfront view, listening to the waves, is all I need to know about this island.

This is the first time I’ve been to the French Caribbean. I do love the lilting sounds of French transposed over the hustle of the day–shopkeepers and restaurant staff switching back and forth between English and French effortlessly. For the 8 millionth time in my life, I kick myself for not learning French. And, damn it, it’s not like I can’t, but seriously–what’s the point now? When I was born, it was still the international language, the language of diplomacy and colonial exploitation, the language of love, the most beautiful language in the world. Today? Well, let’s just say–limited range and usefulness.

My keyboard feels damp after the rain. I wondering if I’m fucking up my computer by having it out in this 99% humidity. I can’t write in the condo–the AC is blasting and it is too cold for me to be inside. But mostly I just don’t want to miss a moment of the tropical rain. I am tempted to move to the tropics just so I can watch downpours more often. I think this is the Californian in me speaking. We are predisposed to think of water as scarce and precious. Well, some of us, anyway.

I’ve asked at the restaurants, and the “locally” caught fish is actually from Anguilla. I am trying to get fresh fish–on an island–and having a hard time of it. I wonder if it’s because of overfishing. Much of the nearshore is protected by a marine park, which usually means they fished it to extinction and now are trying to save it. I don’t have confirmation on this theory, though. I’ve gathered, from asking at the restaurants, much of the fish on the menus that isn’t from Anguilla is flown in daily to stock the 500 restaurants on the island. More than one restaurant offered a catch of the day that was flown in from Europe. What is the point of flying in Dover sole from Europe so that cruise ship tourists can eat imported fish on an island surrounded by the Caribbean fisheries? St. Martin calls itself the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” and I’ll give it that. If you want European food. My travel companion and I ate out every day for lunch and dinner, spending an inordinate amount of time choosing each restaurant we wanted to try–while lolling about on the patio and generally making ourselves useless.

It is low season, which is nice–nothing is crowded. The towns and shops are deserted. The waiters and shop clerks look bored, languid. Restaurants are open, but empty, or maybe one table is occupied. The hosts stand on the sidewalk like circus hawkers–offering free appetizers, free drinks, sometimes even $1-1 Euro exchanges on their prices just to lure in some patrons.

The best meal we’ve had so far was not at the pretentious 4-star French restaurants, but at a lolo, a little local joint serving up Creole food–curries, rice and peas, fried plantains. I had forgotten about rice and peas, which is really rice and beans…it reminds me of when I lived in Jamaica (and, of course, gives me some ideas for future blog posts).

I’m sitting on the the patio, watching another stormfront blow in from across the bay in Marigot. A cool gust precedes it, giving me goosebumps, then the deluge follows. After waiting for days, I finally got the torrential storm I was waiting for.

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Traveling Solo (Part 2), or the Origin of Travel Rule #2

So, my friend hooked up with a local guy on a Caribbean island. All was hot and heavy for them. He arranged for us to all go to a beach bar with a bonfire one evening. Most of the people on the island had motorcycles. So, my friend rode with her guy, and one of his friends gave me a lift to the party. I felt safe–after all, we’re with the fricking locals, right?

Yeah.

Shortly after we arrived at the beach, my friend bails with her dude, leaving me with the friend. The guy looks at me and says, essentially, “Your friend is putting out, so why won’t you?” I told him he was definitely out of luck. He then leaned in very close and whispered, chillingly, “You are a foreigner, I gave you a ride here, and I can take anything I want.”

So, there’s this reputation that American and European women have in the Caribbean: We are all sluts, but especially the Americans. This is not exactly breaking news. It goes like this: About a zillion times a year, horny coeds, bored marrieds, divorcees, and other whatnot lonelyhearts descend upon the lovely beaches of the Caribbean, and say to themselves…”Why, I need to get myself an island boy.”

That’s what my friend did, anyway. (That’s not to say I’ve never done the same myself, but let’s keep the discussion focused on just one aspect of my poor decision-making skills right now, okay?) So there are men throughout these popular tourist destinations whose primary exposure to foreign women has been those in party/get laid mode. Of course, they are wildly disappointed when they encounter someone who’s not putting out, at least not for them.

It sucks, but that is the reality. Am I blaming the victims here? Absolutely not. I’m just stating a very real stereotype about women travelers that is not uncommon to encounter in the Caribbean. Knowing that people may be thinking about you with this stereotype in mind can be helpful in making safer/wiser choices than I myself have.

I had to admit, the dude pretty much held all the cards at that moment. Once again, I found myself, alone, in a foreign country, in the dark, with a virtual stranger about to jump me. My internal dialogue this time was slightly different from the first episode:

“Wow, jackass, you just managed to put yourself in an incredibly stupid and dangerous position again. If you actually survive this, you should probably just burn your passport, moron. Oh, and lose the fucking friend who just abandoned your ass, too. Also, how the hell do you think you’re getting out of this one?”

I activated my inner bitch, and told him to stop assuming American women are all sluts and drive me home. I invoked the name of the inn’s owner, who was a friend of his. This approach worked, even though I didn’t actually expect it to at the time. But why not give it a shot when you’ve got no other options, right?

As with the Italian military guy, I have no idea why or how my response got me out of a very threatening situation. I can only chalk it up to stupid, fickle luck and men with more bravado than actual determination. I am rather short and not at all intimidating, but maybe it was my internal conviction in both situations that I was prepared to fight both of these larger, and scarier, men. (Also, I am certain that even if I had fought back, they would have won, hands down.) If that came through in my words, and tone of voice, I have no idea. So, basically, we’re left with luck.

My point–and I do usually have one–is that there’s no right answer. You should travel the way you want, the way you’re comfortable with. The way you feel safe. And, of course, even there is still no guarantee that you’ll be safe from either circumstance or poor judgment.

There’s a great post over at Almost Fearless that dispels many of the myths about women traveling solo. In fact, she makes the very valid point that Americans are often statistically safer when we’re not actually at home…

Oh, and travel rule #2? Never do the locals. Or at least, don’t travel with a dickhead friend who abandons you so she can do the locals.

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Traveling Solo: Fear and Reality

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

I get this question, in some form or another, frequently. The dangers of travel make great headlines. Two stories I saw in the news this month reminded me of this. The first was a story about a British couple biking around the world who died in a traffic accident. The second was about an American couple who were found safe.

I started my solo traveling career early, really goddamn early. My mom married a man who moved to Alaska, and I’d find my 6-year-old self on planes, shuttled back and forth between Alaska and California, a few times a year. The times were different then, and it wasn’t such a big deal to put a kid on a plane alone for a journey. I sat next to new people who chatted with me, kind strangers who probably put up with a bunch of silly kid questions and who took on the role of temporary entertainment and caretakers.

This experience no doubt had a huge influence on my ability to travel solo. Although I’ve frequently traveled with companions, I have never been afraid to leap into the unknown and travel alone. My first “big” solo trip was to Italy back in the mid-1990s. I packed up a backpack and flew over to visit a friend who was teaching English in Prato. I hung out with her for a few days, and then ventured out on my own for a month, trekking around Italy and staying in hostels and little inns.

Italy taught me a lesson about traveling alone. The lesson is that there is a fine line between being open to meeting strangers–embracing the culture and the possibilities with an open heart and mind–and being closed off and paranoid. I think about this concept every time I travel, and I am always, always asking myself “Where is the fine line?” How much trust do I place in a stranger? At what point do I allow my discomfort and fear to prevent me from doing something? When is it foolhardy and when is it okay?

In Rimini, I met an Italian military officer on the beach. He chatted me up in very good English, and did not come across as creepy or pushy. After a couple hours of talk, he invited me to a pub that evening to meet his friends. A chance to party with the locals! Who could pass it up? I accepted the invitation without a qualm. He picked me up later at the little inn where I was staying, and drove us to the pub.

The pub was deserted. Dead as a doornail. We sipped beers, and he suggested we hit another place that would be more fun. At this point, the guy had my full trust. We hopped in his car, and he drove. And drove. And drove.

Rimini is a small town, and my ace in the hole was that anywhere he took me, I could easily leave and walk or cab it back to my inn, no problem. Except that now we were far outside the town, driving through the darkness in a rural area. No cabs. No walking. I was trapped. I demanded to know where he was going. Where is this pub? I asked, getting a little shrieky. Where are you taking me? Why are we driving so far? He responded, calmly, “Just around the next corner.”

The “next corner” was a dirt round that dead-ended in an orchard, where he promptly jumped me.

I will say this: This was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

“I am miles from civilization, it is dark, this guy is a lot stronger than me, and I am about to be raped. And possibly murdered, and dumped in an orchard. And no one who loves me will EVER know what happened to me” is the exact thought that went through my mind.

How I got out of this situation, unscathed, is less important that the lesson I learned here. (Basically, I pulled an Oscar-worthy performance invoking his Catholic heritage and his mother. Very effective.) It doesn’t really matter: I was extremely lucky no matter how you slice it. Some travelers are not this lucky. Some people find themselves in perilous situations they can’t fake their way out of. And women and solo travelers face unique dangers.

You cannot travel without risk. The unknown poses risk. It is how you view it, how you face it, how you acknowledge it. These are the only things that matter.

There are ways to minimize risk. Knowing the geography. Understanding a bit about the culture and the people around you. Understanding how the people in that location view people like you (your gender, your skin color, your nationality). Or you could take one of those packaged, homogenized tours, where everything is sanitized for Americans. These, in my humble opinion, suck…and you should just stay home and have a lovely time at Disneyland if this is your preferred option.

I believe I’m a cautious-but-open traveler. I understand that this may not always protect me–either from my own folly or from ill-willed people.

When I travel alone, I am more cautious. I tend to do less at night. I am more hesitant to walk around alone, but I try to find ways to do the things I want, without allowing fear–rational or not–to prevent me from seeing or doing something I want to do. I am not the person who takes a cab out to the Egyptian pyramids, and then takes pictures from the car because I’m too afraid to get out of the car (yes, I know someone who did this). I walked through a ghetto (accidentally–bad, bad not-to-scale map!) once on Curacao and was stopped by two old men who asked me, “What’s a little white girl like you doing walking through this neighborhood?” I told them my destination and why I was walking. They immediately flagged a little collectivo bus, put me on it, and paid my fare to my destination. And I can unequivocally state that most of the people you encounter while traveling are more like these men than the dangerous ones.

Awareness of your surroundings is a big part of this. An Australian friend and I met up Rio, and went out for a walk. Less than a block from our hotel in a busy tourist area, we realized we were being followed by three men who had formed a loose circle around us, each about 5-10 yards away. We stopped at a rack of postcards on the sidewalk, and discussed our options. We both immediately agreed–we are walking straight back to the hotel. They followed us almost to the doors, which had actual doormen. We informed the doormen that we’d been followed, and they nodded and just said “Yes, lots of pickpockets in Rio.” Thanks, guys. But, yeah, two short, foreign chicks probably looked like easy marks for them. Later that day, another guy staying at our hotel got pickpocketed. Unfortunately for the pickpocket, the mark was an Aussie football player. He chased down the pickpocket, retrieved his wallet, and dealt with the thief in a very Aussie fashion (i.e., beat him to a bloody pulp).

So, if you think I learned my lesson, and traveled safely forever and ever after…yeah, you’re mistaken.

Flash forward several years, and I’m traveling with another friend. Just up front, to be clear, this woman is no longer my friend.

To be continued…

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Diving on Roatan (Honduran Travelogue, Part 5)

Today was my last day of diving on Roatan, and it was a banner day! It has, in fact, been a great week of diving. I figured out that if you add up all the hours I have spent diving since getting certified in 1994, I have spent something like two weeks of my life underwater. Pretty cool, huh?

I’m staying in the same inn I stayed in during my first Roatan trip. And, I’m discovering (once again) that it’s true you can’t step into the same river twice. Kevin, the owner of the inn, is not as mellow and laid back as he used to be–of course, it’s understandable because he’s now married and has a young daughter. He did remember me, though, and his first question was “What took you so long?” Hah.

The other thing different about the inn is that it used to have an open view of the beach, which was across the dirt road that is West End’s main thoroughfare. Unfortunately, someone has put up another building right on the beach, blocking the inn’s pretty view. I’d envisioned swinging in the hammock on the front porch, leisurely sipping a beer after a long day of diving, and staring out at the Caribbean, just like I’d done before. Alas, this was not to be.

The town of West End has changed a lot–many new buildings, more people, more bustle. However, it looks like the rest of the island is changing even more. There are several *huge* resorts going in about a mile from West End, and everything is much more expensive. There are tons of real estate offices, and people have approached me on the street to offer, in hushed, secretive tones, a prime piece of real estate here. Of course, I offered them a lovely lot on the verge of the Everglades in exchange…no one has taken me up on my offer yet.

For some reason, I have been having the most freakish dreams while I’ve been here. Truly alarming stuff…for example, in one dream, I was enormously pregnant, waddling around in the heat, carrying a very heavy ladder, while looking for a shady place to sit down and rest. I walked up to a nearby house, and out came a good friend’s mom. Who proceeded to discuss, in great detail, the arrangement of petunias and begonias in her front yard (which were styled to look like an American flag). All the while, I was standing there in a bovine manner, holding the freaking ladder, and sweating. I don’t even want to try to interpret this one.

I think I have developed a tiny crush on my Argentinian dive master. Unfortunately, I suspect he is gay. My dive masters have been awesome. They have basically let me do pretty much whatever I want. I’ve gotten in several *very* deep dives, including one this morning to 110 feet. We dove to the wreck called El Aguila, and swam through the hull, squeezing ourselves through portholes and up gangways. On the second dive, I spotted a good-sized octopus–and it’s fairly unusual to see them during the day. We had a photographer on the dive, and he was thrilled. The other group of divers on our boat asked me to come with them on their next dive so I could find them cool stuff but, alas, my 24-hour no-dive-before-flying restriction is now in effect. Diplomatically, I resisted the urge to tell them if they stopped farting around, developed some basic diving skills, and pulled their heads out, they too could actually see cool stuff for themselves. (See, people? I *am* becoming a better, nicer person every day.) I think it is very sad that so many “certified divers” suck so badly at the sport. They are so busy fiddling with their fancy new gear, flapping their arms around, and generally being clueless, that they miss the whole purpose of being underwater next to an incredibly beautiful coral reef. Neutral buoyancy is so underrated.

Anyway, my last day on Roatan will be devoted to getting a bit more of a tan…really behind on my tanning schedule. And I’ll probably have a few cocktails…really behind on my alcohol quotient. And, I may take a little siesta…really behind on my doing nothing regimen. So, as you can see, it’s just go-go-go here on Roatan Island.

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Gunfire! Lust! Loud music! Futbol! Honduras has it all! (Honduran Travelogue, Part 4)

How do you like the new slogan I’ve developed for the Honduran Board of Tourism?

They didn’t seem very impressed when I tried to sell them on it. In fact there was a lot of scowling, so I tried to make the point about truth in advertising (see below), but they threw me out of their office. They didn’t even appreciate that it rhymes. No vision, I tell ya. 

The Carnival weekend in La Ceiba was a bit crazy. I went to the big festival on Saturday–think 200,000 drunk, sweaty people along a 20-block parade route. The language school I’m enrolled in is located right on the main parade route, so it was a handy base of operations. The school had twenty students there, plus me, the only one who was doing the independent, offsite tutor option.

The students were all freshmen from two Catholic colleges. One group was from St. Louis and the other was from Albany, NY. I had no trouble whatsoever telling the difference between the midwesterners and the New Yorkers.  I’m sure they’re very nice people. Really. I did, however, feel like I was surrounded by a pack of used bible salesmen. After quite a bit of cajoling, I finally managed to get some of the braver students to walk down the street with me to see the sights. They were all hesitant and timid…hah! Lightweights. They should try Kingston sometime. There was also a big championship soccer game that evening, which was broadcast on big projector screens up and down the avenue. It was a really exciting game that ended in a 3-3 tie (hey, I like soccer).

The president of Honduras was at the festival, too–he came strolling down the street a few minutes after the game ended. He walked about 3 feet from me…the only reason I knew he was anyone was because he was surrounded by about 10 heavily armed bodyguards. Unfortunately for him, he is about 6’4″ and his bodyguards are only about 5′ tall, meaning any potential assassin would have a pretty clear shot at his head. Perhaps they took “bodyguard” too literally? I didn’t take his picture because I thought there might be some sort of taboo, and I didn’t want to become target practice for the bodyguards. 

Anyway, as it turns out, the school director (my former host pop) has become one of those people who drinks heavily from the moment they wake up until they pass out (what do they call those? Oh, yeah–raging alcoholics). Suffice it to say, by the time the parade ended he was exceedingly, disgustingly, falling down drunk. He offered to give me a ride back to my inn (and, eeeww, sexual favors, but I tried to pretend I didn’t hear that), but I declined, not wanting to go anywhere near a car with him behind the wheel and, of course, not wanting to be in a small, confined area with him, either. Churning waves of nausea aside, it was quite sad to see him in such terrible shape. 

Unfortunately, this left me stuck in el centro, sort of scratching my head about how to get home. By this time, all the good little Catholics had bailed. Some of the teachers and their friends were still there, so I stayed with them to listen to the music. As the night wore on, things got crazier, louder, and smellier. About 10 p.m., I couldn’t take it anymore–it was wall-to-wall people and I was getting claustrophobic.

Then we got hit by the most amazing tropical downpour I’ve seen in a long time. It rained for about a half-hour straight–just a solid wall of water. The streets cleared as everyone ran for doorways, and then all the gutters backed up and the water rose to about ankle deep. Given the general state of infrastructure in Honduras, it’s very probable that the backed-up street drains were spewing raw sewage into the flood waters. I tried not to focus on this.  

One of the teachers–and pretty much the biggest Honduran I’ve ever seen–offered to walk me back to my inn. This was especially great because that’s about the time the gunfire started. He too offered me sexual favors. Guess it was my “lucky” night. Yikes. I managed to avoid the second horny Honduran, and even got a few hours’ sleep between bursts of gunfire. 

By 7 a.m., I was up, packed, and grabbing a taxi to the airport for the next stop on my trip: Roatan. It was time for some serious island chill-out time. I’m amazed by how different it all looks–there has been a lot of development over the past nine years. But it still feels mellow and nicer than Utila. I think, as long as there’s nobody shooting at me, all will be well.

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Crabs, But Not the Bad Kind (Honduran Travelogue, Part 3)

The week on Utila, once I got the accommodations changed, went well. Each morning, my tutor and I would meet for 4 hours on a shady little porch near the beach. In the afternoon, he and his girlfriend would head off on an island adventure and I’d hop on the dive boat. To his credit, the tutor managed to pack about 2 years of college-level Spanish grammar (yech!) into 5 days. My brain is simply overwhelmed. And do I know preterite from subjunctive imperfect? Well, let’s just say, not so much.

The reefs here are pretty fished out and there’s quite a bit of evidence of coral bleaching. But, there’s still a lot of color and lots of little critters to see. Today I spotted an arrow crab with luminescent blue claws and a colorful little anemone crab (hiding away in the tentacles of its host anemone). I also saw a golden-tailed eel–about 1 foot long, looking like a little ribbon swirling around the coral. The dive master pointed out a juvenile spotted drum–the smallest I’ve ever seen! I didn’t know they had the long fins (top and bottom) when they were that young.

Tonight, when I got back to my little inn, the owner cut a fresh coconut off a tree and gave it to me. He said it was a Phillipine palm, and had the sweetest water. I can say it was the yummiest coconut water I’ve ever had–and I usually can’t stand coconut water. Turns out, it’s especially good for washing away the taste of saltwater from diving. Of course, most divers I know would say that beer and margaritas have the same effect. But this really gets to one of the central things I enjoy about being in the Caribbean. These random, small moments of generosity and friendliness. A brief chat with an interesting stranger. Someone who gives you something because they just want to share this thing they love with a new person.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that everyone in the Caribbean is friendly and giving. It’s also a gross exaggeration to say that all Americans are fat, greedy, ignorant travelers. But, hey, sweeping generalizations sometimes contain an iota of truth. My basic travel philosophy is “Don’t be a jerk.” I try to be open to these random moments and cherish them, knowing they’re fleeting, rare, and can’t be planned or expected. I try not to be taken advantage of by the shills and grifters who prey on tourists (I am specifically looking at you, Kingston and Bangkok). I try not to take advantage of the hospitality of people who have, for the most part, so much less than I, simply because of where they live.

As I wandered around the town on my last night, searching for a place to have dinner, I had a feeling I don’t usually get when I’m traveling. I realized it was loneliness. It felt strange to be on the island with my tutor gone and it felt strange sitting down to eat alone. I felt that way all evening, and just couldn’t shake it. As I walked back to my inn, I passed many of Utila’s party spots–with groups drinking and yelling, music blasting out onto the street. There was a point in past travels where I’d be in one of those groups, partying with the divemasters or divers I’d met on the boat that day. Now, I’m more interested in getting in to a comfy bed and settling in for a good night’s sleep.

Anyway, I note the feeling and know it will pass. Overall, I am feeling very relaxed and have another week of travel coming up, which is going to involve some hard-core hammock sitting at my hotel on Roatan.

Tomorrow, I hop on the ferry back to La Ceiba for the big 3-day Carnaval (actually, it’s the Festival of San Isidro, the town’s patron saint). I’m spending a little time with my former host family this weekend. I plan to remind Maria of the saying I taught her last time I was in Honduras: “Lo mas que conozco a los hombres, lo mas que me gusta mi perro.” She found it very amusing; host pop did not.

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So, Where Was DiCaprio? (Honduran Travelogue, Part 2)

When I arrived in Honduras, my first impression was that it reminded me a lot of my trips to Baja and the Yucatan with one of my old travel/dive buddies. Except I have not yet fully submerged a rental car in a body of water (a tale for another time).

No sooner had I arrived in La Ceiba, the director of the language school (my former host “pop”) told me I would not be staying at the original resort, as planned, but at an “even better” one–the aptly named Cross Creek Resort. See, to get to it, you have to walk about 200 yards from the road (mit suitcasen), through what is possibly the city dump, and over–what else?–a fetid little creek. It’s also constructed over the decimated remains of a mangrove forest. The term “bad feng shui” comes to mind.

My first stop was the dive shop, conveniently staffed by snooty British 20-year olds who couldn’t answer basic questions about upcoming dives and the boat schedule. Then, the luxurious “resort” itself. Our rooms (mine and my tutor’s) turned out to be dark little plywood-like boxes surrounded by a horde of Eurotrash backpackers (think “The Beach”).

The place definitely caters to the down-at-the-heels demographic. Turns out, the showers are defective little spigots installed about 6 feet up on the bathroom wall. The control is ON the spigot, so it can only be turned on, in my case at least, by standing on a chair. Except my room has no chair. So I managed to turn it on by jumping up and whacking the handle sideways–all those games of tetherball in 6th grade finally paid off. Very creative, I thought. The spray came out horizontally at a height of about 6 feet, doing me little to no good. However, that was okay, because as soon as I got my hair wet, the water went off anyway. The communal toilets, which are about 50 yards away from our rooms, are the type where you’re afraid to touch anything. But that was okay, too, since they (all two of them) were backed up and unusable anyway. Have I mentioned my loathing of communal toilets in general? No? Well, I loathe them.

Between 2 and 3 a.m., all the backpackers returned from the bars. That was okay, too, because the noise from my fan drowned out their yelling (not to mention retching), at least until the whole island lost power at 4 a.m. It was a good thing I packed my flashlight.

After two nights of this utter fucking travesty of a shithole (to put it nicely), the third day I decided to take matters into my own hands. After all, I’m paying the language school for the accommodations for both me and the tutor. So this thing is on my dime, and I want a nicer place to sleep, dammit.

As with most mornings, my first order of business was to find coffee.

This may sound like a simple enough matter; however, it was not so. The entire island of Utila had lost power, so I had lurched out into the bright Caribbean morning to hunt down a source of caffeine. After a few brief inquiries, the locals pointed me toward the woman with the taco stand on the other side of town, who just happens to have a kerosene stove. Voila! Coffee. (By the way, I did conduct the entire transaction in Spanish, before 7 a.m., and–obviously–without the aid of caffeine. In my book, that counts as an historic occasion.) Coffee-getting successfully executed, the next order of business was to find a new, acceptable hotel, which involved me wandering around town, making inquiries in Spanish. I had already decided all of this needed to be accomplished without my tutor knowing, and possibly protesting…or worse, calling host pop to tattle.

Utila actually has several nice-ish places. I found a much nicer place, called the Holland Inn, right in the center of town. I arranged for two rooms and went back to the “inn” to tell my tutor we were moving. He didn’t argue with me–he just shrugged and said “you’re the boss” (I really need to hear that more often), then confessed he didn’t like the Cross Dump Inn, either. He did call Host Pop to tell on me, but because Host Pop knows me, I believe he just shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Possibly a muttered curse under his breath…but, hey, I lugged video game crap for his kid. I deserve a working shower and toilet.

As soon as we checked in, I showered at the new place, luxuriating in my actual ability to reach the shower controls and get my hair somewhat clean. Between the hotel hunt and my Spanish lessons, I did not get to dive. (But I firmly believe I should’ve gotten a gold star from my teacher for my early morning extra-credit language usage.)

I’ll be diving with a dive shop called Deep Blue while here. It was my original destination, but it turns out the resort itself is on a little cay, so that’s why I can’t stay there–it was too expensive for both me and the tutor to stay there. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to go anyway, and tell the tutor to forget the lessons and go back to La Ceiba. I was feeling very unmotivated to refresh my Spanish, to be honest. But, of course, sending him back to La Ceiba would screw him out of a week’s income.

Deep Blue’s dive operation looked like a good one–they were at least professional and, dare I say it, polite.

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Honduran Travelogue, Part 1

Several years ago, I spent a month studying Spanish and living with a family in the seaside city of La Ceiba, Honduras. I went back to visit my former host family, take a refresher course, and do some more scuba diving in the Bay Islands…this post (and a few others that will follow soon) is excerpted from my journal from the return trip. 

Much like my first trip to Honduras, this journey involved a series of bizarre flight delays resulting in a domino effect that made me miss connections. Unlike my first trip to Honduras, my baggage actually arrived with me this time, so I decided to take the travel mix-ups as minor inconveniences designed to add nostalgia.

The small victory that is my arrival in La Ceiba is owed to sheer willpower, stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality, and a light refreshing nap in a steel chair in Atlanta. It’s a good thing I packed granola and my stepsister gave me an apple on the way to the airport—because it was a long damn day. Also, 24 hours without sleep or a shower have taken their toll, particularly because this should have been a totally sane 12-hour journey.

My grumpiness was alleviated when the amazing sight of Pico Bonito–a gorgeous, verdant mountain that towers over Ceiba’s lush, green coastal plain and the airport–greeted our landing. I was worried that I might not recognize my former “host pop” at the airport, but it turned out I spotted him instantly. He looked the same as I remembered him, somehow having managed to age very little. The plan was to have lunch with him, his wife, and their son Raul the following day before grabbing my onward flight on a puddle-jumper to Utila.

Host pop said Raul was excited to see me, but this statement lacked credibility because (1) he was 4 when he met me, and (2) I’m packin’ Playstation loot that host pop had me pick up for him. Hmmm… Also, those groovy, heavy-duty stainless steel kitchen implements I got for my host mom? Not such a great idea. My bag ended up being searched by TSA, and that gift was the only thing opened. I can’t imagine why they would have an issue with a heavy, solid metal canister stowed in checked baggage. Noted for future gift-buying and international travel reference.

As I mentioned, I consider myself fortunate that my luggage did arrive with me, instead of the 9-day “waiting period” when TACA lost my luggage on the first trip (to their credit, I got everything back intact, which I considered nothing less than a miracle after the first few days). Although part of today’s success may have been my somewhat stubborn behavior with various members of the Islena and Sosa airlines’ staffs—as in standing in front of them in the San Pedro Sula airport, arms crossed, insisting that they verify my luggage was being transferred to the ongoing flight (politely yet firmly, of course).

Some of the school’s other students were not so lucky. Two American women were supposed to arrive from San Pedro Sula on the same flight as me. They managed to get themselves stranded in San Pedro Sula, which is surprisingly easy and common. Unhappily for them, their luggage made the La Ceiba transfer without them and is sitting all alone in the claim area in the La Ceiba airport. I can sympathize completely: They are in for a fun night of barricading hotel room doors and invasions by cockroaches, if my past experience is any indicator.

My accommodations for the night in Ceiba were luxurious by comparison to Atlanta’s steel chairs and the fleabitten hotels of San Pedro Sula. The toilet sat upon a little platform that faces a window with no curtains, so I quickly figured out that it would be best to use the toilet and shower with the lights off so as to avoid giving the rest of the guests a show. The church next door was holding a big, noisy revival—so, free entertainment, too.

The plan for the next day was to get to Utila (luck holding), but host pop informed me that I wouldn’t be staying at the resort he’d originally booked for me. He would not provide an explanation, other than a resigned shoulder shrug, which I consider somewhat ominous. He told me I’m headed to Cross Creek Resort, which I know nothing about but which sounded pleasant, so I also considered that somewhat ominous.

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