Sunday, May 29, 2011

8) Rio Dulce and Deep Thoughts.

After those wonderful two weeks on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, it was time for me to start making my way towards Belize. I had about a week to kill before meeting my Mom in Belize city. For some reason, I decided to head east through Rio Dulce. As a result, I didn't get to see and experience Semuc Champey. I have heard that Semuc Champey is one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. In the middle of the jungle you find hundreds of waterfalls cascading into tranquil pools that have been created by beautiful limestone formations. All I can say is that the photos of Semuc are spectacular and that the reviews are great. No worries, though, I'll get there someday.

Instead, I chose to have a rather mundane experience in a somewhat mediocre part of the country. It all began in Rio Dulce. As you might have guessed, Rio Dulce is a small town on the banks of a Rio that is quite Dulce. The banks of the river are lined with thousands of sailboats and yachts as this is one of the few sheltered areas along the Caribbean coast. Most sailors store their boats here from June through October during hurricane season. There is not much to the town of Rio Dulce, but there is a 'must do' about 30-45 minutes west of town called Finca Paraiso. After paying a small entrance fee and a short walk, you will find yourself standing in front of a huge hot springs water fall. I have been to the boiling river in Yellowstone National Park numerous times, but this is so much better. The waterfall is about 10 meters high, and almost just as wide. It has a small cave sauna beneath the falls that is popular amongst some, but I only found it to be humid and stuffy. This is a great place to relax. There are not too many places where you can sit in a river in the jungle and let the therapeutic hot water beat on your back and neck. The experience gets even better when it starts rains, such a cool sensation. I must have stayed in the water for 1.5 hours before my pruned skin told me it was time to get out. After a short walk back to main road, I simply caught the next minivan back into Rio Dulce. It makes for a very worthwhile half day trip.

I stayed in a backpackers hostel called Casa Perico. Not too much to note about the place except for a young lady I met there one evening. For some reason, she looked vaguely familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her before. As we began to chat, I mentioned that I am from Montana she said that she had met a guy a month before from Montana. I soon realized that the guy of whom she spoke was none other than our very own Captain America. No stinking way, what a small world! I suddenly realized where I had seen her before: she was the Dutch gal that the Captain was so infatuated with the night Pablo and I ran into him in Antigua. She had very distinctive curly hair, I knew I had seen it somewhere before. I was in disbelief, I couldn't stop laughing. I told her my many stories and experiences with our friend and she told me hers. Turns out they went up to Earthlodge together. Eventually, she opened up a bit said that he tried to put the moves on her in the temascal, but she kindly declined. O, my dear superhero, when will you learn that the ladies are immune to your superhero powers? I got a kick out of that one, still makes me chuckle when I think about our encounter. Just when you think you've seen the last of someone, you bump into them or their legacy at the most unexpected time later down the road. I may have gotten a little too involved in my previous stories about our friend, Captain America, but I had fun writing them. Hope nobodies feelers were hurt, it was all in good fun.

It was time to get on a boat. If you get a chance, I highly recommend taking the water taxi/shuttle to Livingston. It's a bit pricey and touristy, but it truly is a beautiful boat ride. It stops at various island preserves that are saturated with thousands of sea birds. Initially it sounds great, but when you get close you are overwhelmed by the ripe smell of fishy bird poop. There's so much guano that the leaves of the trees are white. Take some pictures, enjoy the ride, but plug your nose. do I describe Livingston? It is a mundane town with one of the ugliest and dirtiest beaches I've ever seen, but it was a good place to relax for a few days. I have been very few places that are so laid back. It is a mix of people of Mayan and Garafuni decent. The Garafuni are descendants are of African slaves, and they have some of the darkest skin I have ever seen. It's such a deep, rich shade of brown. And there hair is so course, so different than any other hair I've felt before. I am just fascinated when I close to them. Coming from the almost all white, conservative, and often closed-minded Montana, I am culturally lacking when it comes to being around people of certain color and ethnicity. I am perfectly comfortable around the Latinos, but for some reason I feel somewhat ignorant or foreign when I find myself amidst a group of black Garafuni. I am very open minded and try my best not to have any prejudices, but I'm still not completely comfortable sometimes. This discomfort is a good feeling, because I know I'm changing, I'm growing. The more people I get to know, the more I am realizing we are all the same inside. We are simply human. I have learned that much of the prejudice and ignorance heard growing up is a bunch of bullocks. Some people really need to get out more.

After a long walk down an unremarkable beach covered in garbage and dead fish, you will find yourself at the Siete Altares (the seven alters). This is a miniature version of what I imagine Semuc Champey to look like. There are seven waterfalls that cascade over limestone formations, that is, in the wet season. Of course, I was there in the dry season. No rain = no waterfall. However, there is one waterfall one can hurl themselves off and land in the deep waters below. Quite refreshing on a hot day, yes.

One thing that really stood out to me in Livingston was the poor condition of the dogs. For some reason, I didn't take many photos of the animals, but I'm sure I will have many more opportunities to come. Guatemala, as well as the rest of Central America, has a very different view of dogs and cats than the Western world. Most dogs here are skinny, hungry, homeless, sad-looking creatures that roam the streets scavenging for anything that resembles food. The few cats that aren't killed by dogs appear to be in a similar condition. Some people claim a dog as their own by feeding it scraps on a somewhat regular basis, but for the most part each is left to fend for itself. Most dogs live in fear of humans as they often have sticks and rocks thrown at them. They are basically wild animals, left to battle for survival. If they survive the contagious diseases, parasitic overloads (every dog is loaded with fleas and ticks and worms), dog fights, car accidents, and occasional poisonings, they still have to find enough food to survive every day. They have so many cards stacked against them, I would be surprised if the life expectancy is over 6 years.

This guy could barely walk because of the
huge tumor at the base of his tail. Very sad.

Livingston made the rest of the dogs in Guatemala look happy, healthy, and well kept. Almost every pup and many adults there were covered in mange. Many were emaciated and didn't even look like dogs. Numerous dogs were hopping along on three legs. I saw one in particular that had two limbs so badly mangled she could hardly walk. Not only was I uncomfortable watching her walk, but I just couldn't even understand the biomechanics of how she moved. It was the saddest thing I have seen on this trip so far.

Coming from a Western mindset, and especially being so involved with animals, it is hard not to have compassion. I have often thought, "What can I do? How can I help? I need to DO something. I, of all people, should do something!" Yet, on the other hand, I have had to turn a blind eye from many sick and suffering animals. There are many factors and circumstances that have made it not possible for me to help. There is quite a melting pot of paradoxical emotions flowing through me. I want to help these animals. I would love to provide a better quality of life somehow. However, this is the way of life here, this is how things have been done for so long. Can I even make a difference? Should I even care? Heck, I was talking with a Canadian who has been living in a small town in northern Guatemala. When I mentioned some of these thoughts to him, he said something that took me off guard: "Why bother? They're not even animals. Just leave them be. No one else cares, why should you?"

I am searching for many things on this journey, and one of them is my calling in life. I know this may not come to me, but it just might hit me square across the head one day. Am I meant to start a non-profit whose mission is to help the animals of Central and/or South America? Maybe, maybe not. Where do I even begin? One of the most difficult things is changing the mindset of the people. I could bring 1,000 vets and twice as many vet techs down to spay and neuter the dogs of Central America, but without changing the mindset of the people, it would all be for nothing. If the people don't take any responsibility, within a year or two the stray animal population would be right back where it was before. There are numerous international spay and neuter projects that spay 100's of animals in a week, but in the long run it is questionable if they even make a difference. If you ask them, they will indefinitely say they are doing good because they have that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Trust me, I have been there, I understand. But I am a bit sceptical right now. It's like going to an African village to help plant a crop or give them farm animals for food. It helps in the short term, but if you don't teach the people how to farm or take care of the livestock, you've done nothing for them in the long run.

I don't know, these have been tough questions and I have spent much time chewing over them. There is no question that there is a niche for my training down here, but is it the right niche for me? I'm not going to lose any sleep over this because I know the right thing will happen when it's meant to happen. I have heard the sayings: "It will happen if it's meant to be" or "If it's meant to be, it will happen." Both statements have the exact same wording, but, for some reason, they both say something slightly different to me. Reagardless, they are part of a philosophy I have begun to cling to during my travels. This state of mind has brought me peace in so many situations, from finding a snack or catching a bus to something as significant as finding a long term travel partner or answering on of my deep life questions. On the surface, it may seem a bit fatalistic, but it really has brought me peace countless times. I don't want to impose that one needs to think like this, but it sure makes life much easier on the road. Right now I'm on a walkabout. I'm traveling, experiencing, observing, thinking, questioning, conversing, learning, discovering, enjoying...I'm changing. So much is unknown to me, but I know it  will fall into place in due time. No worries.

On a similar note, I have learned that each one of us is on a journey of life. It doesn't matter who you are, where you are, what situation you are in, whether you are travelling or not, we all have our own path to walk. Even if you are working a steady job and you have a family to take care of, you are living your own adventure. This did not become clear to me until I recently, for I could not see the forest through the trees when I was living the daily grind of a stressful life. But now that I have had a chance to breathe a bit, and I understand that we must make our own life decisions, we must choose what path we will walk. I know there are so many circumstances outside of our control, but what will you do with the choices set before you?

One night, I was sitting around a picnic table in the  middle of an ancient Mayan city, far from any present day civilization. I was surrounded by a group of travelers from all ends of the earth, each face was lit by candle light on this calm, starry night. One wise traveler, whom I respect and admire, would ask a question and each of us would take turns answering. He had many thought provoking questions, but the most profound was this: "Every traveler is either searching for something or running away from something. Which are you?"  This question really hit home to me, it rang with so much truth. I thought about it for a moment, but there is no question that I am searching. For what? I am not quite sure, but my heart tells me I will know if/when I find it. Maybe I won't find it. Maybe I'll look back on this journey one day and realize that I was actually living the answer. I don't know, but I'm at peace with it right now. How about you? Are you searching? What are you searching for? What are you doing to find that which you seek?... Or are you running away from something? What are you running away from? Why are you running away?... Only you have the answer, or maybe you don't, but I suspect each of us fits into one of these categories. Once you figure out the answers to that question, the bigger question in my mind is where do you go from there? What do you do with that knowledge? Must you do anything at all? Can you do anything? How does it change you? How does it affect your decision making in the future? How does it shape who you are? How does it guide you in your journey? Where do you go from here?

Such difficult questions, such profound thoughts, such exciting stuff! This soul searching is not easy, but when all is said and done, I hope and pray it creates a better person. Enjoy your journey!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

7) Southern Beaches

Imagine this: 

Something wakes you from a deep, peaceful sleep, but all you can hear is the sound of waves crashing into the beach just meters away. You sit up and look out the mosquito netting of your open air tent to see millions of stars shining bright in a cloudless sky. The leaves of the palm trees dance in the gentle sea breeze by the light of the full moon. You watch each wave crash into the shore. You can't take your eyes off the breakers, they are mesmerizing. You don't know why but you find a peace, a comfort, a contentment with the crashing of the ocean waves. Each wave resonates deep within your heart and soul. Words cannot describe it, but the sensation is palpable. The thought of laying back down and going back to sleep crosses your mind, but then you realize that dawn is just about to break. The sky is beginning to lighten ever so slightly in the east as the sun is preparing to make its entrance. There is no way you can go back to sleep, the thought of watching the sunrise has perked your mind like strong cup of coffee. After crawling out of the tent, you take a deep breath of crisp ocean air. You smile, you can't help but smile, because you truly are happy in this moment. After taking it all in: the waves, the stars, the moon, the warm breeze, the black sands, you begin to walk barefoot down the beach towards the sunrise. You can't remember the last time you felt the sensation of warm sand between your toes, it feels so good. Rumor has it that the black sand beaches of southern Guatemala are ugly and not worth the effort to visit. These rumors must be true because you are all alone in this special place, there is no one else in sight. As the sun prepares to appear over the surf, the sky changes color from deep blue to burnt orange to bright yellow, and every shade in between. The rich colors are reflected in the white foam lapping at the beach. If that wasn't enough, a sliver of light appears on the horizon. Then right before your eyes it transforms into a perfect sphere of deep, flaming red. It hurts your eyes, yet you just can't look away. Words cannot capture the moment. You feel a peace deep within, you can't remember that last time you felt like this. Come to think of it, you can't recall if you've ever truly felt this way before. You close your eyes, hoping to burn this visual symphony into you memory forever. Although there is no one else in sight, you know you're not alone because you feel the arms of your Creator wrapped around you in a strong embrace and you hear His voice whisper , "This for you, I knew you would love it. I am here with you. I love you." Yeah, life is good.

This was my life for two weeks on the southern beaches of Guatemala.

I met one of the gals from my Nebaj trip during my time in Antigua. She said that she and a friend were headed down to Sipacate to hang out on the beach for a few days and asked me if I'd like to join. I'm always up for an adventure, especially if it involves hanging out on a beach. With that, we loaded the car rolled out of town. We stayed with at a small surfer hangout just west of Sipacate called the Salty Beaver Beach Lodge (yes, the owner, is very aware of the double meaning).  Peter is a cool Canadian who is giving life in Guatemala a go. He bought the small piece of beach front property a few years ago and has been slowly developing the place. So far he has a large concrete patio and well equipped kitchen, both shaded by a thatched roof. He also has a beautiful swimming pool just meters from the beach. This is by far the nicest pool for miles, it even has the beaver logo tiled into the floor. I must say that he has the most comfortable hammocks I have ever been in! I have become quite the hammock snob, and Peter has the creme de la creme, no question. It really is a great little place. Check it out on Facebook.

The place was lacking was accommodation, but Peter was in the process of building a few private rooms with a dormitory upstairs. The concrete shell was there, but there were no walls. He mentioned that he was eager to get the building framed and finished so he could have a place for people to stay. I told him I would be happy to help, in return he was willing to feed me and let me use his tent too. Sounded like a good deal to me. So, I spent my mornings framing and putting up siding, then relaxing in a hammock through the heat of the afternoon. Everything was going smoothly until the 3rd or 4th day. Peter had climbed up a very sketchy ladder to frame in a wall. He got a little off balance and the ladder collapsed on him. Luckily, the hammer missed my head by just inches and I was unscathed. Peter, however, was not so fortunate. He yelled in pain as he hit the ground, legs tangled in the ladder. He held his ankle in agony, there was no question he was in extreme pain. After a brief examination, I wrapped the ankle, then iced and elevated it. I knew this was more than just a sprain and I highly recommended going to the hospital, but he wanted to see how he felt in the morning. By late afternoon, he was in so much pain we had to put him on Codeine. (By the way, you can buy almost any drug, minus most anesthetics, over the counter in Guatemala. Any antibiotic you want, no prescription needed. Pain pills? You tell them you are really hurting they will give you Morphine. I even bought Diazepam (Valium), both pills and injectable liquid, all I had to do was ask. I'm surprised drug abuse is not more prevalent here.) Even with Codeine, Peter could not sleep through the night, so the next morning a friend brought him back to Antigua. Turns out he fractured his Calcaneous (heel bone) and they had to put a pin in and cast the ankle. This was not good timing: he finally had someone to help frame and this happened. Guess that's life. Anyway, he told me I could stay as long as I liked and eat anything in the fridge as long as I kept working on the construction project. Again, that sounded like a good deal to me, so I hung out all by myself at the Beav for another 3 or 4 days. I did my fare share of physical labor, but there's no question that I enjoyed many hours in the hammock.

The view from my favorite hammock.

My favorite hammock (thus far) in the whole world! 
The afternoons were too hot, but the mornings and evenings were just perfect. As the day would start winding down and the sun hung low in the sky, I would find a comfy spot on the beach or in one of my favorite hammocks to enjoy the sunset. Another great thing about the beach here is that the sun both rises and sets over the Pacific Ocean. So, if the sunrise wasn't magical enough, chances are that the sunset would be just as spectacular. I watched a number of spectacular sunsets on the beach, but there is still something special, something magical about the rising of the sun, watching the earth come to life after a night of rest. I was able to get some great photos with my little compact camera. I am amazed at how the colors turned out, imagine how great the photos would have been with an SLR! This is definitely my favorite set of photos yet, so check them out on Flickr if you've got a moment.

As my time at the Salty Beaver was drawing to a close, the food supply was diminishing. Knowing that Peter wouldn't return for a while, I decided to move on. After a 15 minutes in a Tuk Tuk, a water taxi ride through the lush mangroves, and another 15 minutes on foot, I found myself at the Paredon Surf House.  Paredon is a tiny village at the end of a very long dirt road. There is not much around except this cool surf camp. It is a nice, comfortable, relaxed place run by a few cool Swiss guys. I had met them earlier in the week when we ventured over to rent surf boards. Word got out that I am a veterinarian and their ears perked up. They had a number of dogs and cats that needed neutering, I said I could 'fix' that problem. Another 'exchange of services' was about to be made.

The facilities at the surf house are simple yet satisfying. It is a very comfortable and communal living situation with relaxed, friendly folks. They have 2 thatched bungalows over looking the ocean, but they were too warm for me. I chose to stay in the dormitory above the main building, one of the neatest dormitories I've ever seen. There are about 10 beds in a huge space below a massive, vaulted palapa roof, each with its own mosquito net. A marvelous sea breeze would blow through, keepin me cool at night. The food is great, the people are very kind, the beach is wonderful, and the surfing is good.

I have never, I mean NEVER, been a morning person. If you doubt this, ask my parents about the frustrations they went through trying to wake me up for school all through grades K-12. Crawling out of bed didn't get any easier for me in college, vet school, or even after I got a real job. But something magical happened on the southern beaches, my circadian rhythms changed. I would wake up on my own every morning between 5:30am and 5:45am, just before the sunrise. I was fully awake and ready for the day, a feeling I had rarely felt before. It was as if I was as if I was meant to enjoy the sunrise each morning. This is just one of the reasons I fell in love with the Pacific coast, there is no question I will return one day.

I spent quite a bit of time in the water. The waves were a bit large for my comfort, so I spent the first day swimming, getting comfortable with being smashed around. It's amazing how much power a 5-6 foot wave has, especially when it hits you off guard. What's even more amazing is how calm the sea is just beneath even the biggest of waves. I quickly learned to dive below the curl rather than trying to fight through it. I then spent many frustrating days trying to stand up on that darn surf board. I don't know why it was so hard for me to get the hang of it, but I just couldn't get up after catching a wave. I was fine once I was standing, it's not much different than snowboarding, but the standing up part kicked by butt. I was very jealous of the folks who were up and riding after just 2 hours in the ocean. Guess I'm not going to be a professional surfer, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Once I was settled in (meaning a few days of surfing and quality hammock time), it was time to refresh my surgical skills. Although I bought needles, scalpels, gauze, antibiotics, etc. at the farmacia, I was lacking anesthetic as well as surgical instruments. In addition to pharmacies, there are shops all over Guatemala called 'agroveterinarias'. These shops are like our granges or feed stores. However, like the pharmacies, they carry a number of pharmaceuticals only available by perscription in the States. Each agrovet is run by someone who claims to be a veterinarian. I have talked with a number of these 'vets', and every single one has very limited knowledge of anything veterinary or medicine related. The sad thing is their fees are less than a properly trained vet, so they often get called out first to a sick animal. As you can imagine, they usually don't help the situation or they make it even worse. I feel for the poor animals. At one point I met a horse breeder who had a stallion with an abscess on his jaw. Not only was he told to treat with the wrong antibiotic, but he was also given the dosage for a medium sized dog. Come on people, at least read the box and get the dosing right.

Welcome to my operating room.
Anyway, we went drove into San Pedro in search of a vet. Luckily, we found a real-live-certified vet. After a great conversation in Spanish, we convinced him to come out to the surf camp and let me use his anesthetic and tools. When we were rounding up everything needed for the surgeries, he had a heck of a time finding his one bottle of Ketamine. He said it had been a while since he'd spayed or neutered a dog as he blew the dust off the bottle, so this would be a good refresher for him. I thought, "This is going to be an adventure," and it was a good one.

As you can imagine, even the formally trained vets (and anyone else in the medical profession) do not receive the quality of education that we get in the Western world. Not only that, they have a very different way of doing things. I have done vet work in Honduras and Costa Rica, so I understand that things are done differently down here, there is not much that surprises me anymore. For example, in many places they use zip ties to ligate the pedicles and uterus during a dog spay. It's quick, practical, and they don't cause infection problems, so why not? It's a great idea, but would never fly back in the States. However, the vet said he only gives a partial dose of anesthetic because it's more economical and he likes the way they wake up quicker. I hate to see animals in pain, especially if I am the one inflicting the pain. Plus, it's hard to operate when the patient is moving around. So I made him give the full dose of anesthetic. The cats, on the other hand, were overdosed and didn't wake up for at least 5 of 6 hours post op, just a wee bit of inconsistency my dear vet friend.

"Yes, I  do it for the children."
It's not everyday (or ever) that the locals get to witness surgery, so a small crowd had gathered to watch the festivities, many of which were children. I always like to have a little fun when I get an opportunity such as this, so here's a little trick I learned from a vet in Costa Rica. After making the incision and externalizing the first testicle, it must be separated from the tissue connecting it to the scrotum. At this point, I pretend like it takes all my strength and effort to pull on the testicle. At the very moment the connective tissue releases, I let out a scream as I rip the testicle away from the body. You should see the look on their faces! It's the same beautiful reaction every time: the children scream and a look of horror crosses the face of each onlooker. After a tense moment I look up, laugh, and tell them all this it was just a joke. Eventually, they find the humor in it too and they see that the second testicle comes out much easier than the first. This always adds a certain richness to the educational experience. Yes, I do it for the children.

The vet especially got a kick out of my little stunt. He was taken back initially, but soon had a grin from ear to ear. I figured I could teach him a few things with my surgical training, but in fact, he taught me some great tricks for third world conditions. Of course, sterility was minimal (no surgical drapes and I didn't even use gloves), the suture was old, operating on a dining room table, etc. What surprised me the most was that he used tampons to soak up the blood at the incision site. Minus the lack of sterility, it is an excellent idea, since that's what they were made to do. Why hasn't anyone else thought of that? I cannot say that I will carry a box of tampons with me wherever I go (explain that one to the boys at customs), but I will definitely use them in my future surgical endeavors.

In exchange for my testicle rippin' abilities, they let me stay at the surf camp and use their surf boards whenever I wanted at no charge for the week. I was able to observe my patients in the days that followed. Everyone healed well, even the bloody gloveless spay. I did have to pay for my food, but it was a sweet deal. An afternoon of surgery for a week of fun in the sun, sign me up! This was the first time I actually enjoyed the perks of my profession while travelling, and it will not be the last, for I am discovering a nice little niche for my veterinary services overseas. Many more stories to come...

The Salty Beaver Beach Lodge and the Paredon Surf House are great places, I would highly recommend both to anyone heading down to the southern beaches of Guatemala. Whether you need a hard core week of surfing or just to kick back and relax in a hammock, you will find it on here. If you do go, please say hello for me.

In summary, these two weeks were a very special time for me. I cannot describe how beautiful and peaceful this experience was, it really did strike a cord deep within me. Even though I had spent a few months back home in Montana before leaving for Guatemala, this was the first time I was able to truly relax and clear my mind since my resignation in August. I literally felt the stresses of the past few years of life lift from my shoulders. It was a time for me to decompress and find that small voice of peace inside that is muffled, even suffocated by the busyness of life.This was that beach experience I had been dreaming about for so long, I was living my dream.

6) Antigua


One thing I liked most about Xela during those first weeks of class was the lack of tourists, the few that were there were fellow Spanish students. Actually, I was one of few foreigners that stayed in town for the Chirstmas holiday (which, by the way, didn't feel anything like Christmas: cold and cloudy yet somewhat culturally rich yet lonely yet the sweetest fireworks I've ever experienced in my life yet I am in Guatemala and I miss my family yet is it really Christmas?). However, after I returned from my walk in Nebaj (that actually rhymes since Nebaj is pronounced 'Nebok'. Ha, 'a walk in Nebaj', a bit of Spanglish poetry for ya), an uncomfortably large number of gringos suddenly appeared in Xela, more than ever before. A feeling deep within told me it was time to leave and begin my travels through Guatemala. Antigua was my first stop. Those of you who have been to Antigua know that it is probably the most touristy city in Guatemala. One friend even commented that it was irrational for me to flee tourists by heading to Antigua. Regardless, I left Xela and I liked Antigua, so there.

Antigua is a beautiful, old city nestled between a few spectacular volcanoes. It a city rich in diversity: a mix of wealthy Guatemalans, tourists from every country, Mayan influence, and the local Guatemalans (who just seem to blended in). The many cobblestone streets create a nostalgic feel, yet they are hard to walk on and extremely rough in any vehicle. The streets are lined by colorful, interconnected, and aesthetically pleasing (for lack of better  words) concrete buildings which are home to hotels, hostels, houses, art galleries, souvenir shops, and a variety of great restaurants.  I had the best Arabic food I've ever tasted in all my years of Arabic food consumption, who'da thunk? I also discovered a little placed called Cafe de Miel where they make some mighty tasty crepes. You should stop by and give 'em a try. I also highly recommend grabbing a drink at Cafe No Se. A very unique, but pleasant place to chill with an adult beverage in hand (please, only have 1 or 2 of said beverages, 3 at the most, for I shall not be responsible for encouraging excessive adult beverage consumption).

After getting settled, I was able to connect with Pablo, my buddy from the Nabaj trip just a week before. We had a great few days of hanging out and visiting all the local hot spots. Pablo is extremely friendly and well respected, so we would bump into people he knew wherever we went. Some people just have that charisma, that spark. I am still trying to figure out how I can be like that, but my introvertedness keeps a tight leash on my extroverterity. Ah well, I am who I am. Anyway, one night we went out for dinner at a place with a nice, relaxed atmosphere. We were eating and talking about the bad old days when who else but the infamous Captain America walked in in a T-shirt and pajama pants (please see my "Nebaj to Todos Santos" post if you need background on my history with Cpt America). They were probably Captain America pj's, but I couldn't tell. Deep thought: I have heard that Chuck Norris wears Superman underwaer, but I bet it's actually Captain America underwaer after meeting the real deal. We could not believe our eyes! We thought he'd left the country, but no, still sticking around like a fly on a turd, like a bad burp that keeps coming back, like a zit on your butt, get the point. When he walked by we quickly looked away, hoping he wouldn't notice us. Fortunately, Captain America was no match for such masters of disguise. He passed by oblivious and we burst out laughing. We had just evaded one of the most powerful superheros known to man, and for that I am proud. Fortunate for us, he was with a group of travelers from his hostel, so he was a bit distracted. Not only that, but there was also a dutch gal he was intently focused on, attempting to woo her with his stories of heroism and adventure and fish surgery. We were separated by a small wall, but we kept peeking around to see if he had noticed us. It was quite the fun game we played, kind of like teenage girls trying to get as close as possible to their new heart throb without being noticed. After a while, we lost interest and he passed en route to hang out at the bar. We went unnoticed in plain sight for quite some time. Eventually, he saw us and stopped by to say hello. Our cover was blown, but after some dull and awkward conversation he returned to chat it up with the Dutch apple of his eye. When we said our goodbyes I thought that would be the last I would hear of our friend. Of course, I was dead wrong. There is more to our superhero story, but you will have to stay tuned as the saga continues.

Although Antigua is quite charming and aesthetically pleasing, it is definitely the most expensive place I have found in Guatemala. If you are traveling on a budget, it takes a bit more effort  to find reasonably priced accommodation and food. I was able find a few meals for $2-3 US, but it's pretty easy to spend $10+ at most of the restaurants. That may not seem like much to you, but when you are trying to travel on less than $20-30 a day (including food, lodging, transportation, and activities), you don't have much wiggle room after half your cash in gone on a sandwich. I did, however, find a few reasonably priced places to stay on the northwest end of town: International Mochilero, Casa Jacaranda, and Casa Amarillo (didn't actually stay here) are all withing spitting distance of each other. FYI: Mochelero was the best deal because it had a kitchen, wireless internet, and descent dorm.

Antigua has at least 30 historic churches within it's small city limits, some are in great condition while others are simply piles of rubble. If you get a chance, I highly recommend taking a walk through the hotel Casa Santo Domingo. From what I understand, this was an ancient church 'complex' that occuped an entire city block that has since been excavated by archaeologists and restored into an uber fancy hotel. In fact, it has been awarded the best hotel in Guatemala for a number of years running. It is a dichotomy in and of itself: ancient church ruins meet bedrooms for the rich. The basic room starts at $300 US and goes up from there. Stay 3 nights at Santa Domingo or travel comfortably throughout Guatemala for a month or more??? Yeah, that's a tough decision.

Just to get out of the city for a day, I took a trip to Volcan Pacaya, another one of Guatemala's active volcanoes. Until recently, tourists could walk right up to flowing rivers of lava. However, since the most recent eruption the lava now flows beneath the surface of the lava field. Regardless, I thought it would be cool to check it out. Two things I did not consider: the volcano is a 2 hour van ride from Antigua (that is, without construction) and you have to pay a park fee on top of the guide fees., I should have known that $5 for any half day trip must be too good to be true. Even before we opened the doors of the van at the trail head, we were met by nearly 15 men on horseback enthusiastically offering/begging us to rent their horse for the 'difficult' ascent. And, before all us gringos had exited the van, another 15 or so little boys appeared from between the legs of the horses, kindly begging us to rent a walking stick for the arduous journey ahead. A few tourists were suckered into renting the walking sticks, but no one chose to summit via horseback. Tourism can be a good thing, bringing economic stimulation to an area that was otherwise lacking. However, I find it extremely saddening when I see the negative effects of tourism. Here is a prime example: not only does it change the people for the worse, turning rural families into annoying horse and stick rental agencies, but it also ruins the experience for the tourist/traveler. I'm sure I will be expanding on this point later in my writings. Enough for now, though.

After leaving the parking lot, I expected we would hike in peace up to the crater. Boy, was I wrong! Apparently, the horse rental business is quite slow these days because the guys became extremely annoying and persistent. They followed us as we began to hike at an extremely uncomfortable proximity. I was walking in the back of the pack and I could feel a horse breathing down my neck. I looked back to see his hooves landing only inches from my heels. Now, I am usually comfortable around horses, but this was too close for comfort amidst the chaos. The rider was too busy trying to stay ahead of the other horses, oblivious to that fact that I was nearly being trampled by his Hooves of Death. I quickly decided to quicken my step and let someone else have their achilles tendon severed. If that wasn't enough pestering, a few of our horsey friends would ride ahead or next to us yelling "Taxi! Taxi!" Then they would laugh and say something like "Pretty lady need taxi for walk. So difficult and you so pretty. Ha ha ha." This was not shaping up to be a fun trip. Eventually, we summited in peace and then dropped down into the crater. I wish I could have seen the lava flowing freely, but I think it's better underground as a few of our Australian friends may have fallen in. Nothing against Aussies, it's just that those on this trek weren't the exactly the sharpest sticks in the bunch, and I worry about their personal safety. I will say, though, that it was still cool hiking across a lava field.

We reached a vantage point with a spectacular view of the volcanoes surrounding Antigua. I was able to take some beautiful photos and enjoy the sunset. There is now a large hole in the crater you can climb down into, they called it a natural sauna. It was extremely hot and some even roasted marshmallows by the glowing embers of sauna's walls, but I didn't stay too long since I knew not what kind of toxic fumes I was breathing. The best part of the trip was decent. We basically ran down the mountain of black ash in the dark. A few folks happened to bring their headlamps, but I did not get the memo. There was just enough moonlight to see the trail and dodge the tree silhouettes as they passed by. Yeah, that was cool.

I then left Antigua and spent 2 incredible weeks on the southern beaches of Guatemala. Upon my return, I spent a night at the Earthlodge. Earthlodge, as you might have guessed, is a very hippy, green, Eco-friendly, vegetarian type place. Although I don't exactly fit that mold, I quite enjoyed my time there. The food was good, the people were chill, and the setting was beautiful as it overlooks Antigua and its volcanoes.

There are 3 highlights I would like mention from the 20+ hours spent here: The first is the cornhole tournament. What is cornhole, you ask? That is exactly what I thought. It's a similar concept as horse shoes or bocce ball, except that there are 2 wooden box platforms about 25 feet apart, each with a 6 inch hole cut in the top surface. You toss beanbags, very similar in method and order as horse shoes. If you land one on the platform, it counts as 1 point. If you make one through the hole, it counts as 3. For official rules and regs, you can visit the American Cornhole Association's website, They were having their annual cornhole tournament at Earthlodge, so this was probably the best day of the year to be there. Lots of people and lots of fun. It actually got quite competetive, as some of teams were seasoned "cornholers". My teammate and I put up a good fight, but we just couldn't compete with the pros.

After an intense afternoon of cornholing, I needed some serious heat therapy relaxation, and was I in luck! Earthlodge has a temascal, the Mayan version of a sauna. Temascals are basically igloos made of rock or concrete or earth. A fire is lit below a layer of rocks to heat the hut. Igloo + hot rocks + water = sauna = me gusta mucho. Once you climb in, it only takes a few minutes to start sweating profusely. The temascals I had enjoyed on the Nebaj trip were built to hold 3 or 4 Mayan (or approximately 1.5 large gringos who can't sit up straight without getting black soot in their hair). The one at Earthlodge is awesome because it comfortably seats about 8-10 people of my size, and there is plenty of head room. I must have stayed in there for over an hour, only stepping out periodically to cool off and marvel at a spectacular starry night. I have decided that if and when I ever settle down somewhere, I am going to build myself a temascal. It will go great with my New Zealand inspired homemade claw foot bathtub hot tub.

After leaking all the toxins from my sweat glands as well as a cold shower, I found a lone chair at the edge of the property overlooking the city. I sat down to enjoy the stars and ponder life. But before the wheels of  thought could start turning, I was awestruck as I watched Volcan Fuego erupt. I knew Fuego was active, but I no idea it spewed massive amounts of molten lava from its crater on a regular basis, and I had no idea it was such a spectacular sight to see at night. The volcano must have been having some heartburn and indigestion because I watched it erupt at least 5 times in 45 minutes. Post temascal relaxation + bright, starry night + mountain top view + erupting volcano = a state of awe and wonder. As I close my eyes, it's as if I am back in that chair on that warm January night, I cannot help but smile. I have had moments like this at home, but these travel experiences are somehow different. These are the special moments that make life so rich, experiences make this journey so memorable. Not only do they confirm me in knowing that I am meant to be here, but they also create a thirst for more. I am having a hard time putting this into words...It's the special little moments that fuel my passion for travel. They are not the sole driving force, but they are an affirmation, if you will. They are like a cold soda or beer after a long day of hard work in the blistering sun. That's it! They are simply refreshing...refreshing moments and memories that quench my thirst yet leave me desiring more. It's a awesome dichotomy to find yourself in, I love this feeling, and I think that is what helps keep me trekking along on this walk into the unknown.

Wow, I feel like I just had an epiphany, like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I like this feeling. I see now why journaling/blogging is so important. I can think and ponder and chew over life's mysteries in my mind for hours upon hours and end up back where I began, but something special happens when I express myself in writing. I can't explain it, maybe I should write about it, eh? I never was much of a writer, but it must activate something subconsciously within. Weird.

Enough deep thoughts, let's talk about something shallow like money, or even better, the thievery of money. Yes, I was robbed, but in a very unexpected way. But, before we get to the gory details, I must mention my awesome debit account and just as awesome banker. One of my old travel buddies told me about the ATM Rebate Account from First Republic Bank. This account is so awesome because there are no ATM fees anywhere in the world! I could not believe it at first, it sounded too good to be true, but it's not. They actually pay for every ATM transaction fee, no matter where I am, no matter what ATM I use. This means that I don't have to carry a lot of cash while on the road. I figure I will save hundreds of dollars this year on ATM fees alone! Not only that, but Jill, my banker, has been so wonderful to work with. She is always cheerful and so willing to answer any questions. If you are interested in such an account, I would highly recommend contacting Jill at First Republic Bank of Portland. You will not be disappointed. Back to the thievery...

Antigua has a very beautiful central park with a fountain in the center surrounded by many beautiful trees. It is a great place to relax and watch people, especially at night when the trees are illuminated by Christmas lights. The park is surrounded by coffee shops, restaurants, government buildings, and ATMs. There are other ATMs in Antigua, but those around the central park are just so darn convenient. I had heard that I must be careful using these ATMs. I was to only use the ones from reputable banks because there had been an ongoing scam where some hackers had loaded software or debit card reading devices into one or more of these ATM machines. When an unsuspecting victim (me, for example) withdraws money from an account, the hacker program downloads the card number and PIN. From there the precious account information is sent down to Columbia where a partner in crime withdraws your daily limit from an ATM in Bogota. I was very careful which ATMs I used, but somehow they got my information. I did not check my debit account on a regular basis, but for some reason I looked at it just a few days after leaving Antigua. In just 3 days, they had stolen over $1,100 from my debit account. As soon as I noticed this, I immediately called Jill and told her what had happened. She froze my account and emailed all the necessary paperwork. I was a bit nervous that the cash was gone forever, but Jill told me everything would be alright. It took a few days, but the bank reimbursed the stolen cash. The worst part is that my debit card was useless, so I needed a new one. Luckily, Jill had outfitted me with a spare in case of emergencies (good work Jill), and I was able to access my account. She then had a new one made and rush delivered to Belize. When I say 'rush', I mean that it took over 2 weeks, but that's because the mail system down here is crap. Jill and First Republic Bank have been wonderful to work with and I would highly recommend this account to anyone, whether traveler or not. This is the first time that I have had anything significant stolen from me and it shook me up a bit, but it was actually more annoying than anything. On the bright side, at least some Columbian douchebag is having a good time with my hard earned cash. I'm glad I could support such a worthy cause. Maybe this person of undetermined gender is using it to better the world...yeah, whatever.

All that said, I really enjoyed Antigua. Be prepared for lots of tourists and lots of English, but it really is a beautiful little city. I would put it on my 'must see in Guatemala' list. It's definitely worth the stop, if even for only a few days.