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Not to be overly dramatic, but like a relationship that has run its course, with Cancun, I had progressed through infatuation, familiarity, and finally realization that there’s no value left in seeing each other anymore.

I was glad I went through it, but at some point you have to move on, lest you live in the past.

The same could be said for my trip, now over 24 months long.  Without a doubt, it was the single best experience of my life. To say that doesn’t give the trip its due credit, as it really was a string of amazing experiences with sometimes humdrum people, but more often than not, amazing people.

There is something about travel, especially of the travelling variety (rather than vacationing) that strips people of much of the pretension they accumulate back home. With the cultural differences and miscommunications, one of the signals that is thankfully lost are the class separations that are rife even in an ostensibly egalitarian place like America. Some of my experiences were with people that, honestly speaking, I normally wouldn’t associate with, but due to the “ego stripping” that occurs on the road, we connected and ended up creating lasting memories.

I fell in love with nature, more than once.

I fell in love with a culture, more than once.

I fell in love with the lure of the unknown, constantly.

I fell in love with that fear of entering a new place and knowing no one, yet knowing deep down that you’ll get to know someone intimately soon enough.

I fell in lust more than I care to admit, but to be fair, I did fall in love, properly.

All my memories appeared in quick succession, sort of like seeing your whole life flashing before your eyes and it brought a smile to my face. One of the beautiful things about experiences is that as time goes on, the rose tint in your glasses gets rosier.

But as the afterglow of my two+ year ecstasy hit me emotionally, logically I knew the trip was ending and I had to prepare myself for the crash landing back in America.

While I was at that closure stage, to say that I was apprehensive about going back to America was an understatement.  I was certainly ready to live in one place, not have to pack every week and see my friends and family again.  And I was ready to apply my brain to something a bit more challenging.  But the thought of the grind, the monotony and the insular attitudes of America raised my blood pressure.

And I got a small taste of it before even landing back on its shores.

After Cancun, I made a 20+ hour mad dash down through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and finally Honduras involving buses, small international border crossing skiffs (damn that was a wet ride), more buses and finally a nauseating ferry ride.  In an effort to re-initiate myself into having somewhat longer term interactions (rather than the daily dose of friends you get on the road), I decided to meet up again with my Nicaraguan friend. 

She, too, had an overnight 20+ hour journey from Nicaragua, made slightly easier because well, she’s a native speaker.  My Spanish had improved immeasurably, but comprehension fell apart when I had to deal with rural accents common among the taxi drivers and boat captains.  I was excited to both see her and also have her as my translator and teacher.

On the way, I met an Irish couple, escaping high unemployment back home and just starting their Central/South American trip.  They were bright-eyed, eager to see new things and a bit naïve.  Quite the opposite of me, at this end of my trip.  In some ways, I was jealous, because they reminded me of myself two years earlier.  I appreciated the vitality they brought to our group (which included a Canadian) and they appreciated the hardened down-to-business, no-bull$hit way I dealt with taxis and hotels.  In one instance, they were sent in to get the hotel room prices and were plainly ripped off.  I walked straight into the lobby, made, in retrospect, somewhat threatening eye contact, simply said, “You’re ripping us off, stop it” and he reduced the price by 40% without another word in response.

As much as English is the lingua franca and my Spanish was rapidly improving, I reveled in speaking to native English speakers, despite the slight dialect differences.  I was sad to bid them farewell and good luck as they tried to make their way down to Colombia and beyond.

 

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My destination was Roatan, Honduras.  A still slightly edgy tourism destination, it attracted a motley crew of Texans (direct flight from Houston), travellers and hippies.  Canadians, as always, were represented.

My Nicaraguan friend, unaccustomed to long, semi-open ocean rides, nearly tasted her lunch the second time on the ferry ride.  But America was making its presence known.  Groups of package tourists were on the ferries.  I saw tons of those calf length cargo shorts that really, only American guys wear.  The Texas accents carried throughout the island.  The portions (as were the people) were oversized.  I honestly heard someone say, “Why don’t they just speak English like the rest of us?”

I took a deep breath.

The slow re-introduction was helpful.  Despite my half-joking complaints, there are definitely huge positives to the American mentality.  People were very friendly, waving and saying Hi to me all the time, asking me about my trip and just being more open than many parts of the world.  I generally minimized my trip, claiming I was just away for three weeks, just to avoid having to retell my story. And oddly, I’ve realized that when you tell people you’ve just completed a two year, 100,000 mile (160.000 km) trip, they react with the same blank look as if you just told them you visited Olympus Mons on Mars.

Overall, it was quite a lovely week.  The beaches at the West Bay were world class and our little hotel in the little village of West End was as good as any semi-developed tropical touristy village I had seen.  It sure beat the sterility of the mega resorts.

 

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It was really nice seeing my friend again, but in retrospect, our minds were elsewhere half the time.  I was running through the mental checklist of what needed to happen once I arrived back in the US.  She was visibly sad that I was heading home.

As I hopped on that American Airlines flight and was greeted by the familiar smiles of fellow Americans, I palpably felt a chapter of my life closing, with a rush of happiness and sadness, a feeling that was audibly confirmed when the plane door sealed shut and the engines came to life.

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I was now back to the place where the travel bug first bit me.  And how it looked so different this time around.

I was 16 when I first came here.  Dying to visit the place mostly due to the success of the marketing materials on my impressionable mind, I made a deal with my brother: If I hit a certain score on my SATs, he would pay for me to go there with him, his wife and my sister.  Funny are the things that motivated me back then.

Cancun shined like a diamond to me.  It was an exotic land and to the best of my knowledge at the time, quite authentic.  It was my first tropical destination since the 16 months I spent in Pulau Tengah in my infancy and my early imprinting on that tropical island in Malaysia probably had something to do with the allure of Cancun.  I distinctly remember coming back home, intoxicated by travel and looking at a world map, thinking “Wow, this is going to take a long time to cover.”  It’s always hard to discover the beginning of anything, but if I had to pick out the moment that led me to this trip, it was looking at that world map.

I had been back to Cancun a few times after that seminal trip.

One involved a very memorable “romantic trip” with my college girlfriend.   A dreamy time when we had more idealism than money or sense. 

 

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The other involved a big family trip with most of my siblings and 6 of my nephews and nieces.  Let’s just say it was memorable for a different reason.

 

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Now a few years later, I was back in this foreign place that felt like a second home, not because I spent lots of time here, but because I’d been emotionally imprinted here a few times.

But it looked so different this time around.  Perhaps my impression was altered due to the realization that this chapter of my life was closing and the heaviness that that brought, but all of the authentic experiences (mixed in with plenty of manufactured tourist ones) that I had during my two years revealed to me just how “fake” Cancun is.  It’s like the concept of a suburban subdivision applied to a tropical destination.  At times, I detested the gated resorts and fake tropical drinks and just wished I could be back in Malaysia or Corn Islands with scant amenities, a coconut infused with some local rum and a bunch of really confused locals wondering what I was doing there. 

Don’t get me wrong – Cancun has its place.  It is much less risky and the experience you get is predictable.  You could say it’s like going to McDonalds vs. trying out that newly opened single-location restaurant by an unknown chef.  You know what you’re going to get at the former, but the latter might be a far better experience.

With my Swiss companion, we strolled around Playa Del Carmen with the European tourists then found a lovely hotel on the Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres and just enjoyed the winding down of my long trip (and the end of her shorter trip) by sipping wine, playing in the sand and swimming with 50 foot long whale sharks.

 

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I enjoyed it, no doubt.  But the luster that the Riviera Maya had before (I know, hard to believe it ever had any luster) was now 80% gone.  It made me wonder what that would mean for my future “vacations”.  Was I ruined forever? 

Whatever the outcome, I realized, the experiences I’ve had over the past two years were amazing, even the ones that didn’t seem so at the time.  They made me who I am today and in many ways, I consider myself a better person for the experience.  I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

I never liked borders before and I like them even less now.

 

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After a 6 hour long bus ride from Belize City to the Mexican border in the same bus I rode as a 10 year old schoolkid (ahh, Thomas Bus, I never realized your seats were so small) we landed at the Mexican border.  Already armed with some information about border shenanigans, I politely declined to pay the extra $20USD that the border officials try to extract out of most foreigners. 

But alas, I was not to escape unscathed.  After having the bus take off with my belongings at the Bulgarian/Serbian border a while back, I always take my stuff when I have to leave the bus and can’t see it anymore.  I have included the email I wrote about getting interrogated for 8 hours and losing my stuff at the bottom of this post as a few people have asked me why I hate borders so much.  The story, while it happened a few years ago, will explain why and is kind of entertaining, too.

I suggested to my travel partner that she grab her bag too.  She looked at me with a look that clearly said, “You are so paranoid.”

Maybe I am about borders, but probably for good reason.  And in this case, definitely for good reason.  The damn driver left us at the border.  He didn’t want to wait for us to go through passport control, so the guy just drove on despite saying he’d wait.  Luckily we were only about 30 minutes from the nearest bus station, so we just got a taxi there.  With all our belongings.

 

Below is the email I sent regarding getting interrogated for 8 hours on a trip to Eastern Europe back when it was a bit more edgy.  After reading it, you’ll understand why I hate borders.  Apologies in advance for the not-so-hidden stereotypical American abroad comments.  I was even more stupid back then.

__________________________

I should be in jail right now.  I am writing this, still in the haze
of adrenaline, from Sofia, Bulgaria.  I might still go to jail later
this week.  I am writing this as a recount, a way to organize my own
thoughts and also a description in case I don’t make it out of
Bulgaria next week.

Friday morning, I arrived at the Sofia bus station to board my 7:30am
bus to Belgrade, Serbia.  Everything went smoothly.   Having stayed up
all night, I fell asleep fast and hard.  One hour into the bus ride,
the driver signaled for us to produce our passports for the
Bulgarian/Serbian border crossing.  At this moment, I felt a familiar
twinge of fear, because I know the relationship between the US and
Serbia.  We bombed Belgrade to bits in 1999 and the recent 10 year
anniversary of the Srebenica massacre has raised tensions a slight
bit.  In their "War Museum", they proudly display bits of a shot-down
US Stealth Fighter.  I went back to sleep.  Soon thereafter, I was
awoken and told to disembark and bring my bags.

This was the beginning of Chapter 1 of my Nightmare.

Figuring that it’d be a standard customs check, I grabbed my backpack
and daypack, leaving my jacket, pillow and hat on the bus.  In my
sleepy stupor, I was ushered into a stark, cold room with very small
windows.  The border officials started barking at me in some foreign
language (all these Balkan languages sound so similar) and sensing my
confusion, one finally said, "Fake passport."  I woke up instantly.

The tinge became a tingle as I heard the border police ask me one
question after another.  They wanted to know my itinerary.  They
wanted to know why I didn’t have a second passport (assuming I’d have
a Vietnamese one too?).  They wanted to know if I was in the military
or was a government spy.  All the while, they were searching my bags
frantically.  They literally checked everything.  They read my
journal.  They smelled my toothpaste.  Everything.

I admit, I was frightened.  However, I knew that showing obvious fear
would be akin to confessing my guilt.  I had nothing to hide, so I
shouldn’t be afraid.  These guys were good though.  They were all
45-60 years old, well versed in the communist ways of interrogation.
Hell, they probably worked for the police during the communist days.
I had four guys on me, barking at me.  It was like some bad movie.
Finally, the door opened and one guy came in with my passport.  He had
destroyed my passport, peeling the laminate apart.  He said, "American
Passport Fake.  You go to jail."

Immediately, "I want to talk to the US Embassy.  They will prove my identity."

They wouldn’t hear of it.  Or perhaps they didn’t understand what I
was saying.   They were going to send me to jail and then I would be
appointed an attorney next week.  Though him, if I was lucky, I could
speak to my embassy later next week.  They left.  This made no sense to
me.  My mind was racing.  They were no longer communist, yet this
sounds like the stories of communist intimidation that mom/dad retell.
Yes, the communist/socialist party won a plurality in recent
elections and perhaps that influenced policy, but they were also
aiming for EU acceptance in 2007, so these heavyhanded methods
wouldn’t be condoned.  I needed to find the levers to get what I
wanted.  I didn’t dare risk trying to bribe them.  It didn’t help that
the yes/no nods are reversed in Bulgaria, leading to lots of
communication problems between my interrogators and myself.  When he
asked if my passport was fake, I shook my head left and right.  In
Bulgarian non-verbal communication, that signals "YES."

They left.  I sat in silence in the interrogation room for another two
hours.  I watched my bus leave the border, along with my jacket/hat.
The guards taunted me constantly.  One would walk by and stare for a
minute then yell, "You go to Jail!"  Great, tell me something I didn’t
know.  In a moment of sick humor, I bet myself that the Bulgarian
jails had probably not been renovated since the communist days.  I
laughed to myself.  Weird what your mind will do to alleviate stress.

Then, through the door, came the blessing I had asked for.  Two men
came in, barking at me that my passport was false.  The words were
repetitions of what I’d been listening to for hours, but somehow it
sounded like music to my ears.  The accent was clear and I could tell
that they spoke English well.  They pulled me into another room and I
decided to figure out who was who, in hopes of playing one off
another.  The non-English speaking police were…..Bulgarians!  I had
been maligning the Serbians for no reason.  The English speakers
were…..Germans!  I feigned confusion so the Germans would go logical
and start bragging about their mission in Bulgaria.  The combination
of logical talk and having their ego stroked calmed the Germans down.
They were beginning to like me.

This was a breakthrough.  This was the lever I was looking for.  As I
suspected, the Germans were there "monitoring and advising" the
EU-aspirant Bulgarians on how to do appropriate border control.
Every time the Germans spoke, the Bulgarians shut up and listened.  I
had my button to push.  I now knew the Bulgarians wanted to impress
their oversee’ers with their "gentle approach."  I restrained my
smile, as to not reveal my cards.

Despite my blind optimism, I coudln’t ignore the fact that my
situation had gotten worse.  They called for a truck to take me to
jail.  I had built solid rapport with the Germans and they had already
told me about their families at home, but when push came to shove,
they proclaimed that they could only advise, not make decisions.  I
knew this was their polite way of saying, "Force the Bulgarians to do
what you want by using our presence as oversee’ers."  Or maybe my
delusional mind wanted to believe that.

I calmly said to the Bulgarians, but loud enough that the Germans
could overhear, "In my country, and I believe in the EU, if you are
arrested, you are allowed to speak to your embassy."  This was my
silver bullet.  In unison, the Bulgarians looked at the Germans, who
smiled ever so slightly.  They went to another room and called the US
Embassy.

I waited another hour.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I knew the
Embassy would easily establish my identity but would they do it before
the paddy wagon showed up?  I wanted to talk to the US Embassy myself,
but at that point, I’d take anything I could get. .  I paced, but was
forced to sit down.  1.5 hours later, the Germans came back…

"We have good news and we have bad news.  What do you want to hear first?"

"Good news.  But let me guess.  I am who I say I am."

"Yes, at first the Bulgarians wouldn’t allow me to call the Embassy
but then finally relented when we mentioned EU policy.  We faxed your
passport to the embassy and they said the picture matched their
picture of you.  They also have a 2 inch thick file on you and need to
talk to you in order to establish your identity.  Your file is like a
Police Dream.  In Germany, we don’t have that sort of detail on
citizens."

"Yeah, we love Rummie (Donald Rumsfeld) and his beloved Patriot Act.  Bad News?"

"The Bulgarians still want to arrest you and have every right to.
This is their country and their laws.  You will likely spend the
weekend in jail before meeting with an attorney early next week."

This marked Chapter 2 in my Nightmare.

I slumped, because I knew that I had used my silver bullet and
achieved little.  The core issue was my identity.  The Bulgarians
didn’t believe I was an American and I had just established that I
was, yet it didn’t placate them.  My problem was no longer about my
identity, but about the ego of the guy who wanted to throw me in jail.
Apparently he couldn’t lose.

I had one last idea.  The Germans were twitching, so I knew they
wanted to help me.  I looked at his cell phone and mouthed, "US
Embassy."  He nodded (which, to the Bulgarians, meant NO).  I waited.
They all left eventually and the cell phone German came back in, with
the Embassy on the line.  He closed the door.

I had to think and talk fast.  I didn’t know when the Bulgarians would
come back.   The German had explained my situation to the embassy
official already, so I didn’t waste time re-explaining.  I wanted to
push the embassy to act, rather than play the "advisors in a guest
country" bullshit that they normally do.  I needed another lever.  She
re-capped my situation and then began a seemingly harmless line of
questioning.

Amidst "You will probably go to jail.  We will send a representative."
she said, "So, you’re from San Francisco?"  I almost yelled "WTF are
you doing trying to make small talk?  I don’t have much time here."
But I played along.  She asked about my favorite restaurants in SF, claiming that she was from there.  She asked about my favorite places to visit.  She
was surreptitiously trying to establish my identity.  It was smooth
and I give her kudos for that.

Apparently satisfied, she asked about my current address.  I submitted
a recent change of address to the USPS, so I assume she had that in
her intelligence file.  At that moment, a lightbulb went off in my
head.  As bad as it may sound, I knew that, generally speaking,
Americans are brand whores.  You tell someone that you’re a professor
at Harvard and they view you as an aristocrat.  Despite what people
say, there is a class system in America.  Cops help the rich before
they help the poor.  Cops help the bourgeoisie before they help the
proletariats.  I am not rich nor am I really important, but I had to
somehow portray myself as such and maybe she’d work a little harder.
If she truly was from San Francisco, I also knew that more than
likely, she was an environmentalist/liberal.  I couldn’t volunteer any
info, lest I sound like I was trying to manipulate her.  Then she said
the magic words, "So, what do you do in the Bay Area?"  Slightly
annoyed that she was still playing the identity game, I, nevertheless
knew this was my opportunity to make her think that I was "important."

I told her that I was going to graduate school to learn how to become
a "sustainable real estate developer."  I played it up, hoping to make
her think I was some important person and trying to play on her
(potential) Bay Area roots.  I told her that I should go, before the
Bulgarians got back.  I felt that I couldn’t make myself sound any
better and I wanted to cut myself off before I was tempted to lie
about my "importance."  Up until then, it was all "reasonably" true.
But most importantly, if I had truly connected with her, I wanted to
get off the phone while she was in that state.  Maybe she would be
driven to help me.  She said she’d call back and relay the status.

The Germans left.  I was alone again.  I began to resign myself to
going to jail.  At least I’d have free food and accommodations for the
weekend.  I just hoped the lawyer could speak English.   I thought of
my travel partner, on the way to Serbia, alone, probably confused as
to why I had been removed from the bus.  Half an hour later, the
German came back, closed the door and handed me his cellphone.  The
embassy had called the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior.  I smiled
but didn’t want to get my hopes up too much.  She told me that she
kept telling him to either "Arrest me or let me go!"  I told her to
not be so forceful with them and perhaps just give them the latter
option. :)  The commander in charge of Border Police came in.  He was
a small man but carried a big stick, literally.  My heart sank.  Was
he going to beat me for calling the Embassy?  The Germans listened to
him for a bit and told me that he was on the phone with the Minister
of the Interior.  I can’t understand Bulgarian, but I can read facial
expressions.  He was a boy being chastised.  I relaxed, sure that I’d
be released shortly.

I was moved again.  This time, however, it was the plush meeting room.
I had a bottle of water and a comfortable place to sit.  The tide was
changing.  This was merely a stopping point on my way out of this
place.  The Commander came in a few minutes later and told me that I
was free to go.  Good news, but I still had no usable passport.  I had
to get back to Sofia to get a replacement, but he said, "It’s not our
responsibility to get you back to Sofia."  I complained that if his
guards didn’t destroy my passport, I wouldn’t need to go back to
Sofia.  He agreed to drive me to the nearest town, where I could get
a cab.  Fine.

Begin Chapter 3 of my Nightmare.

Well, the nearest town was 2km up the road.  And it was not a town, it
was a food stop. …and no one spoke English.  Someone stopped and
said, "Taxi?"  I looked at their car.  It wasn’t a cabbie.  It was two
men and a woman.  I just wanted to get to the Embassy though, so I
pointed to the US Embassy on my Sofia map and asked "how much?"
Funny how foreigners always understand that phrase.  Another problem
was that I had no local currency, only USD.  They said, $20
dollars…looked me up and down and then said, "No, $40."  I told them
to piss off, that the police told me it shouldn’t cost more than $10.
I nearly snapped.  But at that point, it wasn’t a money issue.  $40
isn’t that much, but I didn’t feel safe getting into the car of a
non-english speaking, non-taxi local who was trying to rip me off.
Call me discriminatory, but whatever.

I turned around and hiked myself back to the Border crossing.  That,
my friend, was a bitch.  I stormed into the Commander’s office and
told him to get me a proper taxi to Sofia.  There was no way I’d get
into a stranger’s car and hope for the best.  I wanted a REAL taxi,
with signs.  He repeated that it wasn’t his responsibility to get me
to Sofia.  I wanted to point out again that without his men’s
actions’, I wouldn’t need to go back to Sofia.  Instead, I simply
said, "I want to talk to the Germans."

15 minutes later, I was on a Polish bus to Sofia.  Bless those Polaks.

But no, my ordeal wasn’t over.  Man, I must have been really evil in
my past life to inherit karma like this.  The Polaks were going to
Athens, and the turnoff was 20km outside of town.  They dropped me off
at the turn-off, right in the middle of a Gypsy settlement.  I scanned
around and they were all staring at me.  I saw a home improvement
store in the distance and made a bee-line for it, walking fast but
trying not to appear afraid.  20 minutes later, I made it to the
store.  A few gypsies had followed me, but didn’t accost me.
Predictably, no one spoke English in the store.  I got a calling card,
called a cab and when he arrived, I gave him the "address" to the US
Embassy.

My luck doesn’t improve.  He can’t really understand the Roman
characterization of the streetnames and I can’t read Cyrillic
characters worth a crap.  He finally understands and he jets me over
there.  I had last spoken to the Embassy at 4pm and told them that I
was going to be late and to wait for me.  I knew they closed at 5pm
and would be closed all weekend.  The Embassy agreed to wait for me.
We get to the "address" in my book and I search around for about 15
minutes.  I can’t find the damn embassy.  I can’t find the damn Stars
and Stripes anywhere.  I finally find someone who speaks English and
they tell me it moved a month ago and that the new location was a 90
minute walk away!!!!

I flag another cab, get to the real Embassy at 6:30pm and felt so relieved as I walked towards the Stars and Stripes.  I have never been
so happy to see US Marines before in my life.  After a little
wrangling, I find out that the Embassy is closed and that my contact
has gone home.  "Come back Monday."

This karma, I tell ya.  Jeezus.  Anyways, I didn’t want to do that.
In Bulgaria, all foreigners must register their passports in their
hotels.  You must keep a form that documents your location at all
times.  Without a passport, I couldn’t get that form.  The Embassy
guards shrugged and said, "Come back Monday."

So now, here I am in Sofia.  The Bulgarians made it very clear that
if I don’t get my papers in order and leave the country properly, I
would be re-arrested.  The US Embassy is closed until Monday and I’m
simply hiding in my hotel until then.  At this point, I consider this
a minor annoyance. Man, we didn’t even bomb this country. It’s just a
delay, really.  I am who I say I am, so once the temporary passport
gets issued, I should be OK.

So that is the hope.  Despite my troubles, this is a beautiful country
with great people.  If you visit, just make sure you have a new
passport.

_______________________

After a few days, the petri dish that was our digestive system returned to its normal state and any issues could be managed with pills.  So off we went, to Tikal, a massive Mayan ruin in the jungle that not too long ago, was too dangerous to visit.

 

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The ruins themselves were gorgeous and massive, as promised.  You could easily spend a week here and not get bored.  But not me.  As a non-archaeologist, my interest in ruins fell off a few continents ago and in retrospect, I think my visit there was simply to check off the box.  With that same hindsight, however, they were quite impressive.  The grandeur of the historical city cannot be appreciated until you realize it was literally built in the midst of a thick jungle that has now partially reclaimed the area. 

 

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And to add to the excitement, the risk of bandits is still very real and you are cautioned to only remain on the major routes.  And in all my travels, this is the only place where the tour guides carry shotguns.

 

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At Tikal, I met a Spanish couple that had followed the path of many other young adults from Spain: they left their country.  With overall unemployment over 20% and youth unemployment over 50%, staying in Spain just wasn’t an option for them.  So in an ironic twist, the former conquistadores are now heading to the former colonies to look for a job.  In this couples’ case, Utila, Honduras, to become divemasters.

In 20 years, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to this so-called “lost generation".  The ones who stay at home have their careers derailed and the ones who go abroad, it could be argued, never built a track record so will be just as lost when they get back, if they ever do return.  But the upside, of course, is that the Spaniards, far more travelled than the typical American, will become even more “international.”  In a world where prejudice is very often simply due to ignorance, this can’t be a bad thing.

 

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Eventually the time came to move along and we decided to spend a few days on Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize.  While beautiful in its own right, this lovely tropical island doesn’t really have a beach! 

Now that our digestive systems were fully recovered, of course, we had no choice but to attack it with alcohol and seafood. 

 

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Belize, an English speaking former British colony has an unexpected immigrant population.  They are loaded with Chinese.  Lots of them.  They run the shops and the hotels.  Everyone thought I was Chinese.  Even the Chinese thought I was Chinese.  If I knew some Mandarin, I’m sure I could have gotten a discount (in China, my buddy spoke Mandarin and the price went from 700 yuan per night to 70 yuan) but unfortunately I only know about 5 words. 

The Chinese immigrants, however, are unfortunately discriminated against in Belize.  Residence permits are $100 for me and $2000 USD for a Chinese National.  I’ve seen this pattern of Anti-Chinese legislation in other countries, notably Malaysia.  I think both sides share the blame.  The Chinese immigrants, being die hard capitalists (ironic, huh?) but sometimes non-adherents to basic tenets of Western courtesy, run efficient enterprises where as a customer, you feel a bit like an ATM.  It doesn’t help that they tend to stick together.  The locals, however, don’t make much of an effort to reach out either.  So it’s a standoff with the Chinese and the locals who begrudgingly hand over their hard earned money to these “unfriendly” merchants. 

I definitely noticed that the locals, when they first saw me, gave me a wary eye until I spoke American English and smiled at them.  They would then do a 180.  Quite sad, really.  I guess there is hope, however.  America stands out as an example, where Chinese-Americans have assimilated quite well and generally, are not despised.  Let’s see if that holds as China rises on the world stage.

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My Swiss companion sorted out our 15 hour grueling trip from San Pedro to Lanquin, a reputedly lovely riverside town on the other side of the country.  After planning so many various hotels, buses, flights, trains, etc. over the past two years, I was very happy to leave it all to her.  All I had to do was grit my teeth in preparation for the long haul.

I have to admit, her generosity was repaid by an episode of willful omission on my part.  But it was for her own good!  When we finally arrived in Lanquin, beer and dinner quickly led to bed (I’m still amazed how sitting on your bum for 15 hours can so thoroughly wipe you out) in the very primitive “rooms”.  The walls were made of wooden boards that probably had more empty space than not between them.   This town isn’t known for nice hotels and well, we wanted to be close to nature.

We pulled out our sleep sacks and hoped to stay below 1,000 mosquito bites for the night.  As I was preparing to lay down, I yelled, “Holy shit!”.  My friend, as tough as she is, is still rightfully afraid of large crawling creatures.  So she shot me a glance and demanded to know what I was going on about.  Frankly, I was tired and didn’t want to have to deal with moving rooms, so I just told her I got bit on the forehead by a mosquito. 

The truth was, I just saw the biggest tarantula of my life crawl into the room.

We slept fine and the tarantula didn’t alert its family to the presence of fresh meat, thankfully.  The next day, however, karma got us back. 

The main draw in Lanquin are the pools outside of town.  We asked the “hotel” staff if we could walk there as we wanted to stretch out a bit after the prior day’s long ride.  He looked at us and said “Yeah, I’d walk it.”  Not knowing that he was trying to say, “Well, if you were Guatemalan, you might make it, but your soft American and European asses will probably collapse”, we started walking.

After 3 hours of hiking in our flip flops, we definitely needed the cool soak and at the end of the day, were lucky enough to find a German family to drive us back.

 

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But karma wasn’t done with us, though.  We dined at the one open restaurant in town and decided to have some lovely banana shakes.  Complete with milk.  They were great…and cheap….at the time.  That, as we found out a few days later when we saw a “milk truck”, had been transported there in 55 gallon drums, unrefrigerated, in the sun.

The results were predictable. 

The next few days were spent fighting each other for access to the toilet.  To break up the monotony of bed->toilet->bed->toilet, we chatted up our neighbors, a British couple who were carrying a wicker basket.  I joked with them that British travel gear is slightly different than the stuff I’m used to.  They laughed at my joke (or maybe at my subsequent mid-sentence dash for the toilet) and when I came back, were playing with the contents: a chicken that they purchased in Honduras and were planning to eat at trip’s end in Belize.  In the meantime, their companion gave them an egg a day for breakfast.

I found it rather odd, this arrangement they had.  We Americans are expert at depersonalizing our food.  Hell, lots of our food doesn’t even resemble it’s namesake (eg – Chicken McNuggets).  But this couple was developing a relationship with their chicken.  They’d feed it like most people would feed their family dog and consequently the chicken would follow the couple around, again, like the family dog.  They even taught it to perform tricks for food, again, like the family dog.  The analogy, however, would end in Belize, when they would grill up their pet.

Poor chicken had no idea what was coming.  Or, maybe it did.  We had left the hotel room door open to air out the smell of American-Swiss food poisoning by-products.  The chicken, maybe eager to escape the impending grill, took every opportunity to come into our room and make itself at home.

So imagine the scene: two people swaying deliriously (we hadn’t eaten much in two days), each moaning about our various phantom pains, alternating our dashes for the toilet while avoiding a chicken hell-bent on escaping its British captors.  Proving once again that not all travel is fun and relaxation, but it definitely is always entertaining.

 

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Before we fell too deep into a relaxed stupor in our beautiful lakeside hotel (ok, to be fair, Jeremy was active, I was the lazy one), we packed up and headed towards Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), a town a few hours away.  The road, however, had a reputation for armed hijackings, so not too many tourists would make the trek out that way.  Perfect for a short escape.

As is often the case, the hijacking fears were overblown but the road itself, while providing stunning views of the lake, also provided stunning drop offs to oblivion.  Combine that with Guatemalan bus drivers who forget that they’re in fact, driving a bus and not a Formula 1 car, and it makes for an exciting trip. 

Xela, without the hordes of tourists, provided an even clearer look at Guatemalan mountain life, but still served enough alcohol to keep life interesting for two guys in search of some fun.

The Goodbye

 

Returning to San Pedro, Jeremy headed back to meet up with some friends he had met on one of his nights out in Antigua.  Being that this was the third time Jeremy had joined me, I figured it’d be good to travel like two travellers, rather than two friends just on vacation.  The key difference is independence.  We just didn’t need to do everything together.  One of the greatest joys of travel is the spontaneity: just not knowing who you will meet around the next corner who could create a memory you will cherish for a lifetime.  And when you’re latched onto a friend, that spontaneity is severely curtailed.  Secretly, I was hoping to infect him with the travel bug and it seems to have worked.

 

The Planned Hello

 

Once Jeremy ran off to meet his new friend, I settled back into vegetative mode in anticipation of the arrival of my Swiss friend, whom I had met in Antarctica six months prior.  She had previously accompanied me throughout Chile and Bolivia but had returned to Zurich but the monotony of home and a surplus of cash (damn rich Swissies) convinced her to hop on a plane and join me for another period of time.  Frankly, I was a bit “over” meeting new friends, so it was quite nice to have an old friend join me.  And I thought I was a planner, but her ability/desire to sort out travel details down to the minutiae blew me away. 

 

The Unplanned Hello

 

When Jeremy was in San Pedro, I had tried to ramp up for party mode, given the reputation of the town.  But for some odd reason, it was quiet.  Of course, once Jeremy left and my Swiss friend came, people flooded the town.  Being the ever faithful friend, I SMS’d Jeremy to inform him of all the single girls who arrived, asking about that charming Californian they had heard about and how I had to inform them that he just left town.

With the crowds arriving came a surprise.  When you’re on the road, as I mentioned before, you develop some pretty close friendships pretty quickly (and sadly, they often end quickly, too), but you’re also quite flexible.  So the “type of friends” you have broadens considerably.  Sometimes, mixing the groups makes for slight tension.

One night, we were headed to dinner and the combination of alcohol and the high altitude hit me quite hard.  I looked over and at first thought I was hallucinating.  I recognized some figures in the darkness.  I thought I saw two Norwegian girls that I had spent considerable time with on the Corn Islands but they had told me they were going another direction, so I chalked it up to alcohol + altitude.

A smile and a hello later they joined us at our table.  It was them.  But this was one instance when separate groups simply didn’t mix well.  It wasn’t tense, it wasn’t confrontational, but it was just.slightly.awkward.  The Swiss girl and my Norwegian friends were just very different and while I was the connector, I apparently wasn’t doing a very good job connecting.

As weird as it felt at the time, it also highlights one of the many benefits of long term solo travel: the ability to “try on” many sides of your personality.  This is what happened here: simply speaking, the Norwegian girls were very different than my Swiss friend.

At home, your friends are generally relatively similar to you.  Similar education, similar interests, similar mindset, similar age.  But on the road, those requirements relax.  You might have a bit of “carefree hippie” in you, but at home, that is not expressed through either action or association.  Abroad, by choice or by accident, you might find yourself surrounded by “carefree hippies” and you just go with it.  Try it on for size.  Because no one will judge you.  And if they do, who cares, you won’t see them in a few days anyways. 

You learn a lot about yourself.  Things you never knew.  Perhaps that carefree attitude is something that everyone should adopt, whether at home or abroad. Myself included.

Next up on Jeremy’s (and consequently my) itinerary was San Pedro de la Laguna, a town on Lake Atitlan that was suggested to me by an old, I kid you not, elementary school buddy that I had reconnected with on Facebook.  My elementary school buddy, Seth, had spent some time there about a decade ago and raved about it.  Seth is pretty straight laced, so I believe the place has changed a tad bit since then.

 

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About a mile up, the cool weather was much appreciated.   My time in San Juan del Sur involved a lot of waking up sweating due to electricity shortages, dousing myself with water and hoping to fall back asleep.  Waking up under a blanket was like sleeping in heaven, in comparison.

Jeremy did the touristy thing (he was, after all, on a two week holiday) while I still retained fresh memories and aches from the Volcan Concepcion climb (1 mile vertical, each way, in one day) and opted to sleep in on his hike day.  This part of Central America poses a conundrum.  Normally, you’d want to go hiking alone or with a small group of other hikers, to attain the solitude that is part of the reason for exploring nature.  But solitude in this region means bandits.  Buses get hijacked and hikers get mugged and worse.  So Jeremy had to go hiking with a guide…and his shotgun.

 

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I avoided weaponry and rested in the hotel.  We “splurged” and stayed at one of the nicest places ($20USD a night) in town where the view was amazing and the sunsets sublime.

 

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Every town that caters to foreign tourists is unavoidably influenced by the tourists themselves.  The merchants and developers evolve their town to cater to the specific character of the visitors.  Then the character is self-reinforcing.  This is why towns lose their character and partly why the holy grail of the traveler is to discover towns that thrive without tourism.  They’re just more real.  Of course, there’s always the trade-off.  Sometimes the things you want as a westerner (alcohol, bottled water, private bedrooms, non-diarrhea inducing foods) are not desired by locals.  While you can live without those accoutrements, and in some instances (Amazon, Mongolia, Trans-Siberian, Tibet) it is actually preferable, living crudo gets tiresome after a while.

San Pedro’s character could be described as Half Israeli and Half Goa-Lite.  For some reason, Israelis, especially the fresh out of the IDF type love to visit this country and this town.  The locals, eager to earn their currency, paint the Israeli flags on their vehicles and businesses and offer kosher food.

More sinister, however, was the reputation that San Pedro was getting as what I could call a Goa-Lite.  Goa, in India, has a global reputation as a drug destination.  You name it, you can buy it and smoke/snort/inject it.  While I simply chuckle at the “independent, non-conformist” style of hippie clothing and dreadlocks (we are being non-formist by all looking the same), partly because it reminds me my college town, the drug attraction was far more sinister.

While I don’t have any issues with occasional recreational use by others, it is sad to see a town develop into a drug destination where laws are flaunted, the police salivate at the thought of bribes and the genuine culture is supplanted by the dream of a drug paradise.  In conversations in Goa and in Amsterdam (prior trip), many of the people partaking were vehemently opposed to their own hometowns allowing recreational drug use.  While Holland chose it due to a philosophical difference with soft drug prohibition, I’m afraid this town leaned that way because they’re poor and it’s profitable.

I don’t blame them at all, but I do wish that drug tourists would just become drug users at home and stop “destroying” other countries.  But I guess if you take that logic to the extreme, I’m sure some of the locals on certain Thai Islands wished that I would just have a few beers at home rather than on their beautiful paradises.