Thursday, February 15, 2007

South American Adventures- Part 2: Pyramids and Volcanoes

Hola part-time amigos y lovers,

I'm growing a beard. It's getting pretty wicked already, and has nothing to do with the recent events of the trip, but I just felt like leading with that fact... Another quick observation I'd like to note is that the Mayan kings have unbelievably cool names. The major builder of Tikal was named Lord Chocolate, and the two greatest leaders of Copan were King Rabbit the 18th and the 15th rey, King Smoke Snail. Lord Chocolate clearly loved himself some Hersheys, but what the hell did King Smoke Snail do to earn that name? Regardless, he is clearly a man with style.

I'm now in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala. After writing the previous email I returned to my hostel and engaged in an hour-long Spanish conversation with a 18 year-old Honduran kid about the paths of our divergent lives, our experiences traveling foreign and domestic lands, and the absurdities of the fact that Americans tip as much as they do. It doesn't sound like much, but because so few Hondurans ever travel out of their country it was really enlightening to hear his varied opinions and perceptions.

The next morning I took a bus across the border back towards Antigua, Guatemala (this time when the authorities tried to rip me off I began asking questions about why/what I was paying and they immediately let me pass for free) and arrived around 7pm. After checking into my Black Cat Hostel, I went out to the parque central to grab a bite and witness the children's festival they happened to be hosting that night. As I crossed the street I heard someone call out my name and guess who I see... the Jungle guy!! Arturo, my Polish-Californian compadre from Flores had just gotten into town as well and we perused the park while he talked again about sleeping in the jungles- "Yea man in Lanquin it was windy so the mosquitoes didn't bother me at all, but it seems pretty arid out here. The night birds should be nice and the ground is soft bro, hahaha, I love it man! What can I say." Upon entering the parque some 4'6" Guatemalans immediately offered us a multitude of drugs, some of which I'd never even heard of, and Arturo struck up a conversation. I watched the impressive 10-minute firework show above us and next thing I know Arturo had bartered his service of "I'll do anything you want" for a sleeping space on the floor of their home. We took a pic, swapped emails, and his last words to me as he left were, "Haha bro, I hope I don't spend the night in jail! I have no ideas what these little fuckers want from me"... the epilogue to the story is that the next day I saw one of the mini-sized Guatemalans on the street and asked que paso con Jungle-man, and he said he was crazy but that he slept on their floor. The following day I got an email from Arturo that simply said "here's my email, great to meet you." The subject, was "Monkey Brains."

That night I went out to a bar with a German and some Dutch kids, and the next morning explored the massive market before embarking on a tour to climb the Volcano Pacaya that overlooks Antigua. We were supposed to pay 25Q to enter the national park but a band of angry Guatemalans surrounded and boarded our bus yelling passionate Spanish. For a minute I thought I was going to have to go into Jackie Chan mode, but it turned out they were livid with the government for ignoring their pleas for a new as punishment they were going to let us all enter the park for free, thus the government wouldn't benefit from our patronage. Gotta love social activism in action... I definitely cannot accurately describe how cool a two hour hike on volcanic rock is, nor the sweetness of actually seeing active lava within 3 feet of you, but I will just say this. We brought marshmallows and chocolate and made lava smores, which is something I doubt I'll ever be able to do again. We then debated over whether someone should touch the lava simply to get a nasty burn, so whenever someone asked you about your scar you could say, "Yea thats from molten hot liquid magma... no big deal." The sunset behind the volcano was perfect as well, and after returning around 10pm I went bar-hopping with a few friends while our other newly-made amigos "went to score some blow."

The following day I left behind the beautiful old-world city of Antigua and took several chicken buses to get to Lake Atitlan, where I am currently at the Las Piramides meditation center in the town of Los Marcos. However I did spend my first night on the lake in the most popular town here, which has been appropriately named The Amsterdam of Guatemala, San Pedro. It's a very cool backpacker town with lots of people pushing crazy drugs and many a rooms for $2 a night, but it wasn't what I came here for so after one nice night I came over to Las Piramides. I could write many many pages on the magic of this place, but I'll stop the email here and wait until next time to discuss the gifts that this place bestows upon its residents.

Random Trip Statistics
Days- 14
Showers with heat- 1
Beard Status- Moderately respectable in a "aww, he's trying" kind of way
Song of Choice- "Helplessly Hoping", as covered by Richie Havens ( attached. turn it up, close your eyes, and drink in this LYRICAL MASTERPIECE that Richie reworks into his own tasty gem)
Random Person- Rick Flair aka The Nature Boy

Lastly, some of you may recall that in my first mass email on Semester at Sea, I wrote about the powerful symbolism behind seeing two seagulls flying together several hundred miles from land... I'd like to share one thought I had while swimming in Lake Atitlan yesterday, wherein a small butterfly flew past me at a height of a mere foot or two above the choppy waves. It was a hazy afternoon so San Pedro (a mile away across the lake) could not be directly seen, but surely felt. It amazed me to see the butterfly teetering above the water alone, as it boldly flew directly into the path of nothingness where I'm sure it assumed land must be... It reminded me of so many peers, who like myself, feel something great along our horizons but fear reaching for it because it cannot be viewed in plain sight. The message was alarmingly simple. Take a chance. Fly alone for a little while in the direction that your soul tells you is right... There just might be greatness on the other side of the lake.

I hope this email finds each of you strengthened with health, happiness and fulfillment.

Challenge the assumptions,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

South American Adventures: Part 1- Candles and Watermelon

Hola amigos y part-time lovers,

Greetings from Copan Ruinas, Honduras! If you're receiving this you're on my email list from which I'll be sending out updates from Central and South America over the next 3-4 months. These may get a little lengthy because they'll be serving as a pseudo-journal for me during the travels, but I'll try to be brief without leaving off too much. I'll also be posting these at , so you can check that if you wanna read these later.

Anyway, I flew from NYC to Guatemala City on Friday, February 2nd. My supposed-friend Matt Wiggins was rumored to travel with me through Guatemala and Peru during the first two months, but will be joining me two weeks late so for now I'm solo. Upon arrival in GuatCity (reputed as one of the most dangerous in Central America) I immediately took a cab to the bus station and bought a ticket to Coban. After using the bathroom where a real midget filled up the bowl with water after each flush (keep in mind, his head level was at my ehh-ehmm level) I boarded the 5.5 hour public bus with about 60 Guatemalans. The ride was my first exposure to the verdant countryside of lush rolling mountains and it was quite breath-taking. Listening to the smooth sounds of Richie Havens made it all the better, and I couldn't help but smile until they put on a Hillary Duff movie in Spanish... I mean, come on, you've got to be kidding me.

In Coban I went to the first decent hostel in site, appropriately named "Hotel Cheepy-Cheepy", which turned out to be so cheap that it had no running water. In desperate need of a shower after 12 hours of travel, I switched to La Casa Luna where I roomed with two great Aussies from Sydney. That night led to great conversation while they both played beautiful guitars in the room, and later on 5 blazed Israelis arrived and we all watched Snakes on a Plane together. A perfect ending to a perfect first day...

The next morning we boarded a 7am bus to Lanquin where we stayed at an amazing hostel called El Retiro. If you're in Guatemala, go there for sure. I took a local ride to Semuc Champey which is an incredible natural wonder with beautiful emerald green pools and a 30k bat cave you can explore. I insisted the locals call me Bruce Wayne... okay that never happened... I went with two French-Canadian girls and a guide for the day, as we walked, climbed waterfalls and swam through the first 3k of the pitch-black caves while holding candles to illuminate the way the entire time. It was genuinely one of the coolest experiences of my life- Awesome, awesome stuff. That night the hostel held a huge Mexican BBQ with great music blasting, people twirling fire, juggling, dancing everywhere, sharing great conversations and better laughs. My favorite quote of the night that embodied the spirit of place was when I asked my Aussie buddy what our room number was, and his accurate response was, "Puma"... I easily could have stayed there for a week, but I'm on a tight schedule so I left at 7am the next morning for Flores.

Flores is the jump-off point to go see the famed Mayan ruins of Tikal. After the 7 hour ride to Flores I got some grub, jammed with some other backpackers about cool locales, and watched the Super Bowl in a small cafe with some other Norteamericanos. The game was great, def a unique experience in Guatemala, but the undoubted highlight was Prince... I don't know what the general response has been, but he was pretty kick-ass in my eyes.

The next morning was a 3:30am wakeup for a sunrise tour of Tikal. We boarded the hour-long bus to the site, and entered in the shrouded mist of darkness and fog. The near-full moon illuminated the silhouettes of the towering temples, which gave me a severe case of the "holy shit this is awesome!" chills. We hiked 30 minutes through the jungle and climbed Temple IV, the tallest scalable temple, and sat overlooking the forest and ruins awaiting the sun's greeting. Although the fog definitely detracted from what could have been a spectacular sunrise, the experience was still amazing and literally hearing the forest come alive with waking cries from howler monkeys and varied birds gave me a second round of the chills. The rest of the morning was spent exploring the massive ruins and viewing playful monkeys, and that evening I met a 23 year-old Polish Californian (I know) with no shirt or shoes, long blond dreads, and we spoke for an hour about different spots while he expounded on the virtues of sleeping in a hammock in the straight-up wild jungles of the world. "I love it bro, I just love sleeping in the jungle.. I just march off into the woods and I'm at peace man... I gotta go change my contacts, I'll be right back but you can use my Mag-Lite if you want" Hahhaa, priceless.

The next morning I took the worst of the many many public bus rides I've taken so far. Let's just say I had to hide my money and passport in my shoes cause of certain people on the bus, the guy directly behind me made "tssk-tssk" cracking sound every 20 seconds for 6 hours straight, and the honest highlight of the ride was when a 250lb women sat beside me while crushing my thigh with her thigh-overhang... BUT, she smelled absolutely divine. If the heavens created a scent that made every person immediately happy, it would be her splendiferous scent. As bad as my semi-crushed lungs were feeling under the weight of her meaty elbows, my heart and mind were singing because every time I felt miserable I'd lean over to get a good whiff of her ethereal odor... I'll leave out the shadiness of arriving in Rio Dulce at 11pm to a hard-falling rain and a cab driver openly carrying a gun who offered me a ride, but needless to say I slept in a single-bedroom alone with a shower that was filled with spiders (and I hate spiders).

The next morning I left for Copan, Honduras, where I am now. The bus-ride was great (mostly empty) until we switched to a mini-bus in Chiquimula. This bus was meant for 20 maybe, and I swear they put 65 of us in there. As usual I was the only gringo, and I sat next to a 60 year old machete-wielding farmer who was slobbering down a full watermelon piece-by-piece. I couldn't believe that out of everyone there I got seated next to him... this guy had talons for hands and would take a bite of his sliced watermelon with the juice spraying everywhere, in particular all over his entire chin and shirt. It was almost funny, except for the fact that it was one of the grossest things I've ever seen. Think of that scene in the last Lord of the Rings with the guy eating the berries, and imagine being in the most congested bus imaginable with that guy practically sitting on you. I also had a beautiful almond-eyed 5 year old Honduran girl basically sitting on my lap, which made the trip bearable cause she was so cute and friendly. Soon though the old farmer fell asleep and nodded off onto my shoulder. When he suddenly came to an entire massive mouthful of drool fell onto my lap... I saw it outta the corner of my eye and thought, "This can not be happening." Luckily the man above answered my prayer, cause the 5 year old girl was still sitting on my lap and took the bullet hahaha. Ahh, thats terrible, but oh so true. It did get slightly worse as a crying baby was seated on her mothers lap directly behind me and incessantly grabbed/tugged my shirt, but thankfully after 30 mins a bunch of people got off the bus (I swear they got off where there was just a dirt path into the mountains... really crazy but grounding stuff to witness) and I had space to move seats. Finally I shared a good laugh with some of the locals witnessing my misfortune, and spoke a little bit in Spanish about their lives around here.

Crossing the border in El Florido was fine, as both the Guatemalan and Honduran authorities illegally ripped me off for about $2 a piece, which is cool by me. Copan Ruinas is about 30 mins away and a 10 minute walk from the detailed Mayan ruins of Copan where I spent today taking it all in. The town is surprisingly charming and last night I shared a great meal and legendary laugh session with an Argentinian guy and German girl. There was just something indescribably cool about laughing your ass off while walking down the Honduran streets and sharing stories/observations as an American with a European and South American... all understanding each other in a combination of English and Spanish. A great night for sure.

Thats the full update for now leaving out the parts my grandmothers would not want to hear about the shadiness of certain events. But I'm here safely and incredibly excited for Antigua, Guatemala and Lake Atitlan next. Traveling alone has been challenging at times but it's forced me to meet so many diversely interesting people, relearn my Spanish very quickly, constantly remain stimulated by my surrounding environment, and dig into the depths of introspection that I would otherwise rarely be able to reach...

I hope this email finds each of you happy, healthy and fulfilled. This trip has already reminded me that no matter how much you think you know or expect, life will constantly push you further. It pushes you to adapt, to change, to seek new connections and every so often, inhale hope fully. The first sunset I witnessed on this trip was from the bus window on my first night... the sky blazed with an assortment of oranges unlike anything I'd ever seen. I've been fortunate enough to witness incredible sunsets across the world, but there was something uniquely distinct about this one. The same sun I've witnessed every day of my life somehow spoke a new language of expression to me, proclaiming that its ubiquitous presence in my daily life could always be countered by its simple ability to appear as something totally fresh on any given day... That was all I needed to see to put a huge smile on my face. Each day provides something new for each of us, whether you are in New York or California or Atlanta or Honduras. The only question is how you choose to capture and experience that gift.

As always, be safe and stay classy,

PS: If anyone is interested in traveling around Peru during March lemme know... you're all more than welcome to come along.