Saturday, May 31, 2003

It is the last day of May. 35 days remain before I journey back to Europe. I hope! Today is also a big day for Air Canada. If the pilots union does not agree to some consessions by midnight (EDT) tonight, the airline will go out of business. That means that Canada will no longer have a national airline, and that thousands of people will be stuck clutching plane tickets that are useless. Count me as one of those. My $1300 return ticket to Copenhagen may have no better use than as toilet paper.

It is beyond me how a company with a virtual monopoly cannot make a go of it. It speaks to may things, but at the end of the day, those at the controls must be the most inept buffoons on the planet.

Freelance television work has seemed to have dried up too. Its been a real struggle in the past month to make ends meet. And there is little work on the horizon. This is nothing new. In the past several years, I've endured feast or famine many times. However, with an expensive trip to Europe looming, it makes for a strange feeling. I'll call it dread!

Cross your fingers that Air Canada still exists in 11 hours.

From Vancouver, a hearty cheers!


Monday, May 26, 2003

Note: This is the final entry from the Central America trip journal. Preparations have begun for the next adventure: The Great Baltic Border Expedition, which takes place from July 4 ? 23. I will be traveling to Copenhagen for a few days before joining my border freak pals in a road trip across Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Sweden. We will also cross into Belarus, Russia, and Norway. You can follow the preparations here. And the journey as well.

And now, finally, the last day in Belize.

Thursday, May 1, 2003
Belize City, Belize

The last day in Belize begins much the same as the previous days: far too early and with far too much heat. Vancouver will take care of the latter, no doubt.

The list of things to do is long, so the early start is actually a good thing. And I can always sleep when I?m old.

The first order of business is packing. In addition to CD rot, Belize has some sort of strange fungus that expands anything you bring into the country. Thus, despite having less luggage to take home (a portion of what I brought down is staying with Brent), it will not fit into my bag. This leads to two questions:

1. Why do I have so much stuff?
2. How the hell did I get it down here?

Now I am jumping up and down on my large bag, trying to fit way too much in a space that is way too small. The seams are beginning to let go, due, no doubt, to years of pushing the laws of physics. I resolve to bring less on all future travels. Really.

After packing, repacking, cramming and jamming, it appears I have accomplished the impossible task. It is all in there, and the zipper is zipped. This bag has served me well, having got it in 1996 at a television conference as a freebie.

I see a terrible site: there, in the corner, stand my hiking boots. I swear they mock me. How and I going to get those in the bag?

The solution: ignore the problem and eat.

Roh is in the kitchen, whipping up some eggs. Brent has gone to the store to pick up some corn tortillas. I love corn tortillas, even though they probably hold the highest concentration of carbs on the planet.

Maybe I can?t get my bag closed because of the 20 bottles of hot sauce I have collected on this trip.

When I am back in Canada, the first thing I have to do is attend a wedding. And that means that I need a gift. Despite the difficulties with my luggage, it dawns on me that I could get a really cool gift here in Belize.

Brent suggests going to the local carver up the street. This sounds like a good idea. At the shop, which is more of a shack on the side of the road, surrounded by logs, the kid inside passes us a couple of photo albums stuffed with pictures of the work that has been produced here. It is exquisite. Ranging from small to huge, covering all subject matter, much of the pieces are carved out of mahogany.

Unfortunately, there is little in the way of pieces for sale. There are a couple of eagles and dolphins, but nothing that really speaks to me. It turns out that I could have ordered up a nice sized custom carving for US$150 ? US$300. And if we?d come in three weeks ago, at the beginning of the trip, then I would be picking up the finished piece now. Shit.

Back at the house, the clock warns that the holiday is coming quickly to a close. I record an interview with Brent in his back yard. I want to do some radio stories on ex-pats, and Brent has a great story.

It?s hot sitting under the old mango tree. As we talk, I realize that I?m going to miss Miss Nell calling Ashee, Ossifer, and the 8 dogs. Well, all the dogs except for the one that hates me. Barky Barkerson, I call it. I think its real name is Princessa.

Roh calls a cab and we say our goodbyes. It has been a great trip here, and I feel like I?ve been away from home for more than three weeks.

Bullet pulls up in his cab. Brent tells me that I have an interesting ride ahead.

Bullet tells lots of stories on the way to the airport. He traveled with Ali in 1974-5. Is this true? I don?t know. But it makes for a great tale.

There is a big bicycle race on, and we are forced to detour. Then we have to stop for gas. And, of course, I have left leaving for the airport far to late. I even have to give Bullet an advance on the fare so he can pay for the gas. The total fare was agreed to be US$20 ? and we this was locked in when I left Brent & Roh?s.

As we careen through Belize City, Bullet and I have a long conversation about the value of travel. How important it is to meet people and understand their daily lives; visit the attractions, sure, but also to take the time to talk to the street vendor or cab driver.

At the airport, we say our goodbyes and I tell bullet that I want to hear more of his stories when I next return to Belize. We exchange cards, shake hands and I put my bags into a figure-four leg-lock as I try to wrestle them into the airport.

Inside it is madness. There are no lines to speak of, just people standing in large groups, all sporting a lost look.

I make my way to the Belize Bank office. I want to convert a hundred or so Belizean dollars back into US cash. Brent has played my cambio for the trip, and before I left his house, I converted more money. The main reason was so that he could get his hands on more US$. And the plan was for me to covert the Belize dollars back to US at the airport.

Instead, the bastards at Belize Bank have taken a two-hour lunch and won?t be back until my ass is 30,000 feet above Mexico. I?m really starting to see why Brent hates Belize Bank so much.

I make my way through the lost groups and eventually I am standing at the Continental Airlines desk. Everything goes smoothly here, except that I am not told where I have to pay my escape fee. Belize charges foreign tourists US$20 to leave the country. This money is used primarily to stock the liquor cabinets of government officials.

After winning the match with my bags, I raise my championship belt high. My luggage, now riding a conveyer belt, disappears behind a wall, destination: the mysterious cargo area.

I decide that it is time for me to go to the departure lounge and visit the highly regarded duty free. This is apparently one of the best duty free stores on earth. One where there is an actual bargain to be had.

On the way to the departure lounge, I squeeze through the stunned throngs and arrive at a little desk. The woman there asks for my passport and my departure tax receipt. Huh? Isn?t this where I pay it?

It turns out that it?s not. That little desk is located back where the throngs are. Of course there is no signage to indicate the location. After several minutes, I find a stressed out woman behind a tiny podium that is labeled Continental Airlines, not ?pay stupid-government-minister-liquor-cabinet-refill-tax here.

A glance over my shoulder reveals that Belize Bank is still closed. Poor dears must be on a long lunch. I pay my US$20 and get my receipt and repeat my journey to departures. I hand my passport and receipt to the same woman and I am granted access to the security area.

It is quiet. Too quiet. The smell of coconut rum fills the air. A couple has had an accident ? they?ve dropped a carry-on bag which had contained a bottle of rum. Now it contains a bunch of glass and soaked belongings. The smell of rum has caused the entire security staff to disappear. I walk through the metal detector, then reach around to get my bag, and continue on. No security, nothing. I can?t even voluntarily present myself.

I am in heaven. The duty free store is amazing. Big bottles of Absolut are going for US$8. Similar prices can be found on all the other items. I settle on a bottle of 12-year old Nicaraguan rum. It sets me back about US$15. I want to buy more ? a bottle of One Barrel Rum perhaps, but decide this will just be more stuff to lug around and Canada Customs will have a problem with me doubling my liquor allowance.

The flight boards, and I wave to the Belikin Brewery as we taxi past. Next stop, Texas. I am sad to see the palm trees of Belize fall away beneath me. The flight goes as planned, though I am squeezed into my seat. Have I gotten bigger? Lunch is served.

Houston, Texas

We are informed that we have to clear US Customs before proceeding to our connecting flights. I have three hours between flights. My original schedule had called for a 40-minute turnaround. I decided that this might not be enough. Thank God I did.

It is chaos at George Bush Moron International. No less than a thousand people are packed into the customs area, trying to get past one of 10 customs agents who are taking their front line role very seriously. Hours fly by and the lines shrink slowly. Panicked people are everywhere ? miss their flights and losing their patience. Yet there is no sympathy from the gatekeepers of America. Every diaper must be checked for traces of anthrax. A young Norwegian woman loses it completely and begins wailing. In a rare show of sympathy, an airport official helps her complete her customs form and takes her to the front of the line. She has already missed her flight.

Roughly 2 hours later, I am the 5th last person to clear customs. Everyone else is gone, and there have been no other international flights arriving.

After going through more security and having to remove my shoes & belt, I am finally allowed the privilege of joining a bunch of Canadian bar owners for a pint in the departure lounge bar. This kills the final hour before hopping on the direct flight back to Vancouver.

Another blur ensues, and before I know it, I am back in the wonderfully welcoming space of Vancouver International. This has to be the best airport in the world. In a word: civilized. It is spacious, calm, and quiet. Just what one needs after a long flight.

Customs is a breeze, but there is a long delay at the luggage carousel. The bags come up from the bowels of cargo slowly. Perhaps one every five minutes. My big bag comes up after a short wait, but there is no sign of the case containing my video gear. I wait and wait and wait, feeling like I?m back in Texas.

A feeling of dread wells up from my own bowels. Due to the intricacies of the insurance industry, I have no coverage on my camera. And as each minute passes, I am convinced that I will never see it again.

I am on the verge of a breakdown as I approach the Continental luggage counter. And then, I see it: there in the fragile pile is my camera. It has probably been there all along. I grab it, and then a cab.

Coming home from a holiday is a weird experience. It is a mix of relief to be back in one?s lair and sadness that another adventure has come to a close. A pile of mail, mostly bills, is a reminder that real life continued while I was away. But it is cool and wonderful. And comfy. And home.

I drop my bags, brush my teeth, and head to bed. It feels nice to be snuggled in my own bed.

The quiet is deafening and I struggle to fall asleep. There are no loud stereos or barking dogs. Just silence.

A highlight reel of the trip begins to in my head. It is done in a ?This is your life,? style. I think Chuck Barris is the host. ?This is your holiday!? he announces. In walk Pandy and Grand Master and Brent and Roh. Chi Chi man is playing his drums. A bottle of One Barrel is opened.

I smile to myself as I drift off?



In the weeks since this journey, there have been changes in the amount of work I?ve been doing. The steady gig with CBC kids has all but evaporated. And there isn?t a lot of money left in the bank. This is the hard part about being self-employed. Work comes in fits and starts. After a huge first quarter, it appears that things have dried up temporarily.

To complicate matters is the commitment I have to be a part of the Great Baltic Border Expedition: the third border expedition in as many years. This time the itinerary includes Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Russia. And it is a trip I simply can?t pass up. And it begins on July 4.

Luckily, I have US$1200 left over, which should cover the GBBE expenses nicely. But I have to scrape to find the C$1300 for a ?cheap? flight to Copenhagen. Hello Visa card!

Stay tuned!


Monday, May 19, 2003

*** Holiday Monday in Vancouver. Victoria Day. Cheers! I found some time this morning to get some more of the Belize trip written up. Almost done now. Yay! Read on!


Belize City, Belize.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
“Of Grand Master, lighthouses smelling of urine and pirated movies.”

It has been a long night with a short sleep. Although I am in no way complaining about the accommodations that are being provided me free of charge, I would be remiss if I didn’t describe my bed.

It is a futon with a metal frame. The mattress pad is on the thin side and the metal slats that are under the pad can easily be felt. My body lines up perfectly with thin spots in the mattress, so my hip feels like it is resting on concrete. Luckily, it is only steel. I toss and turn all night, trying to relieve the pressure and avoid the formation of bedsores. When I do manage to drift off, the local dogs decide its time for an impromptu howling session. This brings me back to consciousness and the pain.

But it is free. And I’m not complaining.

The layout of Brent and Roh’s house means that I have to walk through their bedroom to get to the kitchen and bathroom. I tip toe through their room, looking off into space, just in case. I immediately walk into a fan and then step on the cat. I am nothing if not subtle.

Coffee down here is amazing. I have become addicted to the stuff. Using rainwater I put a pot on. I hear Brent get up, and it sounds like he is already pissed at Belize Bank.

I tag along to watch the fun as he tries to get his bankcard back. Huge lines, an ass of a manager, and little customer service leave Brent ready to pull his accounts. His experiences with the banking system here are incredible. Luckily there is some competition, though even just getting an account is a hassle – forms and letters of reference and so on.

We’re in downtown Belize City running errands when we see Lyric Man, the Rasta guy from the Pandy show. He is in the back of a truck and waves as he drives by. It’s a small country!

A few blocks later, we bump into Andy Palacio, a singer/songwriter and someone I’d like to interview. But time is short, and that will have to wait for the next visit.

On the way back home, we stop for huge plates of stew chicken and rice & beans from a street vendor. This is close to where Brent lives. It's lunchtime and there is a group of people getting food too. Cruffy is the Belizean word that Brent uses to describe them. It basically is the Belizean version of white trash. The cruffy order and watch with steely eyes, making sure they get their fair share. There is a large toothless woman who is just plain scary. I worry when she hovers too close to my food. As I am about to say something, she waddles off.

The plan for the afternoon is to track down Grand Master. He is the unofficial poet laureate of Belize, and the guy we heard at Andy’s studio a few days ago. I have to get an interview with him before I go.

The best way to find him is to head towards the tourist village. This is a new place that has been built since my visit in 1999-2000. Outside of the tourist village fences there are a number of street vendors selling similar or better merchandise for half the price. They tell us that they last saw Grand Master heading into the village.

The tourist village is little different than a Midwestern mall. Perfect for the Carnival Cruise crowd. It is sterile, over priced, but thankfully, air-conditioned. And the bathrooms are the cleanest I’ve seen in Central America.

There is no sign of Grand Master, so we head back the way we came, passing a funny scene at the gate to the village. There are signs warning that the street vendors are not part of the official mall! Yikes! Real people! A crowd of people stands there, scared to proceed, fear etched into their faces.

“Is it safe?” asks one.

“They are locals – and they’re dangerous looking,” says another.

After teetering on the edge of having an actual tourism experience that is not based on a marketing plan, the group turns around, in search of the safety of a Burger King.

Down the road, we pass a line of white women getting their hair braided. This is a ridiculous sight. Attention all white people: you look stupid!!! I imagine that the Belizeans doing the braiding for $20 a head laugh themselves silly every night.

One of the street vendors says that he saw Grand Master heading towards the way we came. We turn around and head back towards the village. And there he is!

He recognizes Brent right away. Being a six and a half foot white cameraman, Brent is easily noticed. And Grand master is recognizable right away: he is a short man, wearing a striped orange shirt, carrying a walking stick, with dreadlocks topped with a button covered hat. He wears glasses with no lenses and a watch with no clock. Think Spike Lee. Or Bobby McFerrin.

“I heard that two white guys were looking for me, and I was wondering if I should hide,” he tells us.

He is a warm and affable man. I explain that I am doing some stories in Belize and I would like to chat with him about his poetry and his music project that we heard portions of at Ivan’s studio. Grand Master, real name Leroy, is pretty savvy when it comes to marketing.
We’re sitting in a tourist bar in the tourist village looking nothing like tourists. I plug in my recording gear and we start talking about his life: His age (35) his attempts at suicide (2), his crack addiction, weed, booze, the Ghetto (his “office”), his political views and his dispute with the Prime Minister. It is an amazing conversation with an amazing guy.

It’s funny how we must appear to the folks around us: they probably think that some local scammer is ripping us off. They have no idea that this is the essence of travel: meeting unique and interesting people. It took a while for me to discover this, but with each trip, the experiences get more rewarding. And carrying a microphone seems to open up doors that I wouldn’t have even noticed before.

I buy a couple of drinks for Grand Master as we spend at least an hour talking. Brent is asking questions too, and with his perspective as a resident, I learn even more about this country. We have some problems with the sound: the bar keeps cranking bad music, and a deck is being hammered together only a few feet from where we sit.

In addition to the “radio” interview, I want to shoot some footage of Grand Master with my video camera. We leave the bar and walk towards the edge of the sea – passing the spot where Grand Master wrote his first poem. I pay the bill and Grand Master pours the remains of his drink into an old rum bottle he carries with him.

We’re sitting at the edge of the harbour, where a lighthouse towers over us (and smells like urine) and water taxis and fishing boats speed by. Launches head back and forth to the cruise ships carrying hard currency in and braided hair out. Ebb and flow.

Many of the same questions are asked and answered on camera. It is a blessing to have Brent here, not only for the second brain, but to have someone to shoot for me. It makes interviewing much, much easier. We are interrupted by buses (sporting humorous destinations like New York City) that seem to being doing laps, ants that find our exposed feet tasty, and more construction. There is no quiet here.

Grand Master is a great interview – every once and a while he digs into his little pouch and pulls out his book (he has 2) of poetry. We talk politics, and he shows us the autograph of the Prime Minister, a man he has the ear of. He has a habit of reciting his poems when the conversation turns to something he has written about. It is amazing.

Following the interview, we head back to the part of town he calls home. Like Pandy, he knows everyone and everyone knows him. I want to purchase a copy of one or both of his books at the gallery (Image Works) that stocks them. Unfortunately, it is closed. Time is getting short now and Brent and I have to get back to the house. This is my last full day here, and the option of staying longer was put to bed long ago.

I also want to shoot some video of Grand Master performing his poem “For A Few Dollars More,” a dig at people who sell their souls for money. We struggle to find the perfect location. We take a turn here, a turn there and suddenly end up in a back alley. There is a leaky water main bubbling at our feet. Rats and snakes are watching us, unseen. And the remains of what once was a building stands before us. Perfect!

I shoot photos and then three takes of Grand Master performing his work. This is great! And will make for great reading/watching/listening back in Canada.

We thank Grand Master and I slide him $20 for his time. He asks that Brent and I sign his book. Just below the Prime Minister. It was truly a great experience, and one that isn’t in Lonely Planet. But it should be. And if you ever find yourself in Belize City, make sure you find and hang out with Grand Master.

Walking back through the commercial core of Belize City, we bump into a photographer whose stunning street life photography is featured at the national museum. He knows Brent, of course, and we stop for a short chat. It’s pretty cool to be hanging out in a place where you can easily cross paths with artists and poets and musicians. In only one afternoon, we have met all three. Perhaps calling Belize City a shithole isn’t fair. In reality, there is a lot of greatness under the crusty surface.

Back at the house, we clean up. It’s time for dinner, and I am treating Brent and Roh. They suggest an Indian restaurant. It is a splendid choice: the food is great, and it only costs US$50 for the three of us to push the capacity limits of our stomachs.

After a cab ride home (walking would be impossible due to over indulgence), we settle into watching some pirated pay-per-view on cable. Tonight’s bad movie was shot in Vancouver (aw, home!) and every once in a while you can see someone stand up. The film was pirated by someone who shot the screen in a movie theatre. And this is playing off VHS and on cable. Go figure.

The movie is about cheating death and death getting pissed off and coming back to make things right. It is exceedingly gory and really dumb. Out attention soon wanes and that means that it is time to call it a night.

The lights go off as I reflect on my last full day in Belize. And what was probably one of the most interesting days in my life.


Sunday, May 18, 2003

*** Here are the events of April 29th. Finally getting caught up.
On another note, I booked my flight for the Great Baltic Border Expedition -- heading to Copenhagen, then the Baltics July 4 - 23.
Wait for those tales. But first, the old ones:

Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Flores, Guatemala

Another relaxing 6am awakening. The reason for this outrageous start time is because our bus to Belize leaves at 7am. Being so early, it’s going to be tough to find any food. The amoebas have left my body, and I am ready to feast.

We hit the street in search of something, anything, to eat. There are no restaurants open this early, so a small shop will have to do. Unfortunately, they are all closed. Brent thinks a bigger store on the far side of town might be open. We have just enough time and high hopes.

We are not disappointed. The shop is open and they have a large selection of cold drinks and hard cookies. This will do fine. On the way back to the hotel, we find a shop that has just opened and is selling fresh bread. So far so good.

Our bus, a minibus, is scheduled to pick us up in front of the hotel. We take up a spot outside the hotel and wolf down our food as we wait.

Flores is just waking up: grandparents are walking their grandchildren to school, older kids are going door to door delivering papers, and adults are heading to work. It is now after 7, and there is no bus.

A series of mini-vans stop and ask us if we’re going to Tikal. More people walk by, and the newspaper kids are now on their second lap. 7:30am. No bus. Time to eat some more fresh bread. 8am, no bus. This isn’t good. But we’re being patient.

Finally at 8:30am, we go back inside the hotel and try and call the bus office. When we can’t get through, we decide that maybe we better go to the bus office. It is there that we find out that our bus is long gone.

It turns out that we have tickets for the 7am bus, but the ledger that the drivers follow says we’re scheduled on the 5am bus.

Brent’s Spanish skills come in handy. We are able to get a refund in American dollars and a taxi to Santa Elena where the other mini-buses depart for the border. This has been a hassle, but it worked out well, and we’re too tired to really care. Getting pissed off never helps when dealing with these sorts of hiccups. There is simply a different level of customer service and you can either accept it or choose not to travel.

There are a number of mini-buses at the spot where we are dropped off. We are pounced on by fixers and are quickly squeezed onto a mini that is due to depart within an hour. Suddenly our fixer screams that another bus is about to depart and we should get on it.
In our stunned morning state we somehow manage to accomplish this and make sure our bags are moved to the right mini. The price is cheap, only Q20 (US$3) each, but it will only take us as far as the border at Melchor

The mini is nearly full, but for the few cubic metres that the driver figures we can squeeze into. It goes without saying that it is hot, the air conditioning is broken, the music distorted, the road-worthiness questionable. I love travel!

As before, the highway is good, except for the last 50km of brain rattling hell. It seems a little less intense this time though, though that could be due to the cushioning that comes from being squished between Guatemalans.

We arrive safely and are dumped on the Guatemalan side of the border. I have a mission: to find a rare Belize – Guatemala border marker. There are only 3, and one is very close to this crossing. Because it predates Belize independence, it is marked Guatemala on one side, British Honduras on the other side. This is all the more remarkable, given that Guatemala didn’t recognize the border and has just recently agreed that Belize is not part of Guatemala. Although this is still not 100% legally the case. The Guatemalan constitution leaves some room for a their claim to Belize.

We walk across the bridge, where Guatemala continues for another hundred meters or so. After passing through Guatemalan immigration, we step across the official borderline.
There is no sign of a marker anywhere and Brent is suffering from the heat and a sore back. He is concerned that he has slipped a disc.

On the Belize side of the border we are the target of a few dozen moneychangers. We brush them off as best we can – and ask if they know where the infamous border marker is. We get three answers.

This frustrates Brent and he heads off to the shade of the Belize immigration building. Being a border freak, I must find the marker. It is so close, and I can’t just give up. Especially knowing that it is marked with British Honduras. I need to get a picture so I can show all the border freak brethren.

I walk back towards the Guatemalan immigration building, to where the line is. I can see the division of the two countries, marked with a fence on the south side. But on the north side there is something strange: the border appears to cross a football field. In fact, it does: I have discovered a second divided football field along this border. Curious, I step through an unlocked gate, heading north.

At the end of the field I see it: a concrete marker about three feet in height. It has been blackened with time, and has tilted at a weird angle, due to erosion around its base. I can only stand on the north and west sides of it. On top, it is marked: British Honduras on one side, and Guatemala on the other. Because of the erosion, it is impossible for me to take pictures from all angles, but I manage to capture enough to show it in all its glory.

Yes, I am obsessed.

Walking back to the Belize Immigration building, I spot Brent slumped against a wall. “Did you find it?” His excitement is much more subdued.

We proceed through customs with no problems – and I am happy that the ban on Canadians (due to SARS) has become a memory.

Outside we search for a taxi to San Ignacio where we will grab a bus to Belize City. The cab driver tells us it will be US$10 to San Ignacio, but for US$30 he will take us all the way to Belize City. Elias, the driver, puts on the hard sell when we say no. It is far cheaper to grab a bus. He won’t take no for an answer. We tell him to take us to San Ignacio. As we head out of town, he drops his price to $25. And then stops to pick up his brother. He asks if it’s ok to drop his brother off at a church and wait for him. This is not acceptable, and the tension in the cab rises. He is now offering a ride to Belize City for $20. This is actually a good deal, but since he has been such a prick, we’re firm about the bus.

By the time we hop out of his cab in San Ignacio, we’re starved. We purchase our bus tickets and pop into Eva’s to chow down and have a refreshing pint. Brent heads off to the Belize Bank instant teller to get some cash. The machine is down, but we have US$, so there is no problem.

An hour later we’re on the low-end premium bus to Belize City.

We arrive at the bus terminal and decide to walk to Brent’s house. It isn’t far, and it will allow him to get some money out of an instant-teller along the way. There aren’t a lot of bank machines in Belize, and none of them are hooked up to the international network. Some will allow you to take cash advances off foreign visa cards, but not Belize Bank.

The bank machine is located in a Texaco, and it feels like we’ve just walked into North America. It is exactly the same as a Texaco in Canada – with shelves of snacks and transmission fluid. I grab some water while Brent gets some cash.

I turn my head when I hear Brent cursing loudly. The bank machine has captured his card. There is no reason for this, other than the fact that he inputted his PIN incorrectly, one.

I stand there admiring my salt stains as Brent has the manager call the bank. Belize Bank is not known for their compassion. They tell him that he can pick up his card tomorrow – but it is impossible to do it today. This does not go over well.

We make the dusty trek back to Brent’s house and immediately collapse. Our clothes are in dire need of an exorcism. Luckily, Brent and Roh have a washing machine that is just a wee bit more efficient than using a rock in the river. But barely. The process is a series of filling tubs, emptying tubs, filling tubs again, spilling water on the floor, and emptying tubs. But it works. And within a few hours, the offending attire is drying in the tropical breeze.

The rest of the evening consists of being flopped out in the living room, enjoying the comfort of three fans set to high. Next stop: sleepy town.


Thursday, May 15, 2003

Here is April 27th AND 28th!

Livingston, Guatemala
Sunday, April 27, 2003


The morning is simple: eat breakfast, buy hot sauce & fruit drinks, wander. Try as I might, I’m not stumbling across the hotbed of Garifuna music I had expected. Maybe there is more back in Belize? Or in Honduras?

The manager of the Rio Dulce is a friendly and talkative Swiss. He has short, spiky dyed blonde hair. He is on the short side, and is bent over the counter, adding bits of dried plants to bottles of thick liquid. He smiles as he describes his fine collection of rums, elixirs and flowery shirts. The pride he is showing for his love potion leads us to conclude that there may be some similarities between Livingston and Flores.

Pangs indicate that it is time to feed the growing beast in my stomach. Wandering around is made all the more difficult by the oppressive heat. It just doesn’t quit. This is the sort of heat that Red Adair feels when he’s putting out oil well fires.

I notice that a man, quite similar in style to our hotel manager, following us. Almost every time I stop and turn around he is there. At a bar. At a restaurant. Outside a store. Strange.

After sweating off a few dozen pounds searching for a good and Brent approved cheap place to eat, we arrive at a place almost directly across the street from our hotel. The menu looks great, the prices are low, and we can watch the world go by in shaded comfort.

We place our orders for something based on rice or beans or chicken or beef, order a pint, and kick back. We talk about a lot of things, including the woman scammer from last night. I feel pangs of guilt, and we discuss whether maybe she was telling the truth. We end up coming to the same conclusion: she was a big time scammer. The food arrives and we tuck in, while discussing the chances of our Vancouver hockey team in the playoffs. It is quieter today, probably because the heat has knocked the energy out of the entire population. What must summer be like?

Our peace is interrupted a soft voice. “Doug?” it calls out.

Oh oh.

It is the girl from the night before – and I am completely stunned. Brent thinks I have a new friend, until I introduce her as “that girl I told you about.” I didn’t add “… who is a big scammer!!”

She comes up and starts talking about how hard a night it has been, and if I’ve reconsidered my refusal to give her a loan. Brent and I look at each other, look at her, then our food, back to each other, her again and so on. This goes on for quite a while. If she’s a scammer, she doesn’t look like one. But I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?

Since we’re halfway through our meals, we are annoyed with her now. And her crocodile tears. Please let them be crocodile tears, I think to myself. I look at her and sternly say, “uuuuh… no.”

Now, normally, that would be enough for any potential scammer to bugger of and scam some other pasty-white, middle-aged touristas. But not her. No. She has to stand there, blubbering slightly, staring at us with this how-can-you-throw-me-to-the-wolves-when-I-look-like-a-candidate-for-Miss-Wholesome-Godfearing-USA expression on her face.

“BUGGER OFF!” is what I want to say. Instead, I stare at Brent who, in turn, is staring at my food. I pray that she will just walk away. And at the same time, I feel the guilt of someone who’s yanked a food from the mouth of a starving child.

I look at my food in silence. And then, miraculously, perhaps stunned by the awkward silence, she wanders off.

“SCAMMER!” I scream inside my head.

Turning to more important things, I realize that I have not yet had a Magnum on this trip. A Magnum is an ice cream treat-on-a-stick that comes in various flavours – almond being my fav – and is available around the world except Canada, the USA and Belize. But they’re available everywhere else on the planet. At one time I used to save Magnum wrappers from my journeys, until I realized that it was stupid. Now, I always have a Magnum, as it is actual proof I am traveling. Q12 later, I am stuffing my face with a Guatemalan Almond flavoured Magnum. It is a challenge to devour it before it melts. The mess on my face is my Gold Medal.

We play hide from Danny throughout the evening. I think he is too bombed too know who we are, but we take no chances. When we see Danny coming, we hightail it in the other direction.

There is a hockey game on tonight, back home, and we’re determined to see it here. It’s being broadcast in America on ESPN2. But we only get ESPN Espanol here. The glowing drink bar is closed, the TV in our hotel lobby doesn’t get ESPN, and neither does a restaurant that we try. The internet should have the game audio streamed, so we bound into one internet café, ready to stare at the walls while visions of Vancouver hockey players dance in our heads. Unfortunately, the air temperature in the café approaches that of molten steel. Despite the availability of cold beer, this will not do.

There is another internet café up the street, so we decide to give that one a try. But the Gods are against us: it closes at 9. Disappointed, we give up. There is just no way that we’re going to be enjoying Hockey Night in Guatemala ce soir.

We stop into a store and pick up a couple of cold beers and then head for the 2nd story deck of the hotel. Perched up here, we watch the world go by. It’s relaxing and quiet and beats melting in an internet café listening to streaming audio buffer.

Danny comes stumbling up the road, and we take some evasive action: hiding behind support beams and our own feet (this can be easily done in a hammock).

Some other guests come up to the balcony. From what we can tell, they are a middle-aged Dutch couple and a couple of 20ish Norwegian women. As we relax in our hammocks, we can’t but help hear their conversation. The subjects include dope and sex. It makes for a very interesting alternative to the hockey game. And Danny is nowhere to be seen.

This is a fine ending to a fine day.


Monday, April 28, 2003
Livingston, Guatemala

Mr. Rooster and his band have decided that 4 am is a good time for everyone to wake up. And so they cock-a-doodle-doo at full volume without even a break for air. These must be special non-breathing foul bred specially for psychological warfare.

At 7:30am the room is 400 degrees, and it is time to get out before we actually perish. With this heat and humidity, death is a very real possibility. And I won’t even talk about the rash.

This is our last morning here. And, worryingly, my stomach is feeling funny. There is something going on inside, but it isn’t severe. And at this point it isn’t a concern.

Breakfast today will be taken at the Rio Dulce. We do this for efficiency sake, and this is one of the few times were we eat in the same place we stay. Perhaps it’s a fear of recognizing a cockroach from the room in our meal. Hello, again!

I have mentioned that the taste of fruit here far surpasses anything available at home. This is because fruit is allowed to ripen before it is picked. With this in mind, I order the banana pancakes and a coffee. The total cost is Q21 (US$3).

The banana pancakes are amazing. I don’t know if I have ever tasted anything so amazingly good. So many chunks of banana are crammed into the pancakes, that laws of physics are being broken. And the taste is out of this world. It’s like super banana. I never knew that bananas could taste so… banana-ey.

The clock tells us that it is time to head down to the dock and grab a water taxi back. This seems to be a turning point: the realization that this is not normal living, and that it will soon come to an end. By Saturday I will be back in Vancouver, attending a wedding. It seems so far removed from this reality. And that, quite simply, is the magic of travel. It’s like being in a parallel universe: one where there are no bills, no chores, and no work. It’s a wonderful, if fleeting, experience. And it makes the bills, the chores and the work worthwhile. This is what separates from the animals. When was the last time you saw a hippopotamus backpacking around Mexico?

At the main dock there are quite a few people waiting for various water taxis to take them to one of many destinations. Due to the early hour, there boats are loading quickly, meaning that we won’t have a long wait before departing. We are swarmed by a bunch of guys yelling “Boat! Boat!! 70Q! Boat!” I think for most people, this can be intimidating. I find it mildly annoying, but, we do need a boat, and these are the guys to see.

After paying, we have to wait about 20 minutes. I walk over to a nearby park where there is a statue of Jose Marti, the Cuban poet. There is a bust of him, and I manage to translate the plaque enough to discover he once visited here. Nearby. An obviously bored Guatemalan soldier surveys the scene. Is he guarding Jose? Livingston? Poor guy.

As we wait for the final 5 people to fill the boat, we notice that all the other passengers are French. We notice this because they are dressed impeccably. And don’t smell. This is not the case for the 2 Canadians in the boat. I’m sure somewhere in France, someone is writing a blog describing 2 smelly, poorly dressed Canadians. “Mon Dieu! Les Canadiens! Sacre bleu!”

Being on the boat brings instant relief. Suddenly all seems cool and comfortable. It’s the first time in days that I’ve felt like I am not melting. As we fly along El Golfete, I notice we are following a different route. We pass more thatched roof homes, more expensive looking eco-inns, and all sorts of people doing everyday chores along the water. This new route takes us down narrow channels. Brent tells me to keep an eye out for crocs.

Without warning, our boat pulls up to a dock and we are expected to get out. Scam! Damn!! We are being forced to spend a half an hour and half our loot in some sort of ecological interpretative centre. The highlight of this is a huge market selling all sorts of overpriced local wares. Now, I have no issue with artists selling their wares. Nor the markup. The more they can make to continue being artists, the better. But I am not pleased at being forced to stop here. Brent sensibly points out that this is just the way things are. And, he’s right. Judging from the amount of product flying off the shelves, it appears to be a brilliant marketing plan. And, the location is pretty nice.

Our secret itinerary has more in store. We stop at the dumb hot springs again. One of the French folks dips a toe in. Thrilling. Then we slow as we pass a huge cluster of lily pads in full bloom. This is actually nice enough for me to grab my video camera and shoot some shots that will never be seen again.

Next stop, an island that appears to be nothing but mangroves. I’m not quite sure of why we’re stopping here, but I think there is one less person on our boat. This would be a dandy place to dump a body.

We pass lots of fishermen in their impossibly low-to-the-water boats. I have no idea how they avoid being swamped. I wonder how far back in history the design goes. The green on green shoreline is dotted with shacks and palaces – which get denser the closer we get to the mainland.

Our thoughts turn to the Crow Bar and Jose’s steak sandwiches. We still have to catch a bus for the four-hour ride to Flores, so it’s a good thing we hit the road, er, water, early.

Castillo de Sam Felipe (Fronteras), Guatemala:

Instead of putting ashore at the dock near Crow Bar, we dock on the other side of town. And we also don’t realize or think to ask if the boat will continue to the other side. It does.

We offload and are walk through the remnants of a carnival/beerfest. It is hot again and it stinks too. And, the amoebas are beginning to samba in my belly. After walking past dusty trucks and trailers, crossing the main road, being set upon by currency changers and transport arrangers, we sit our tired asses down at the Crow Bar.

“Two Tecate and two steak sandwiches, please.”

Jose Lopez is behind his bar. I can’t recall if I introduced Jose in the last installment, so bear with me.

Jose hails from El Salvador. He worked for CBS News as a cameraman for 20 years. During that time he was posted to such holiday spots as Sarajevo and Rwanda. After 20 years of that, he returned home to shoot news in his native land. But he was not impressed with the lack of quality and the attitudes that are prevalent in Central American broadcasting. In fact, many of the work stories that Brent has told me over the years are very similar to what Jose is now telling us.

Jose got so frustrated with things that he left El Salvador and bought this bar. He’s been here for a few years, and his regulars include a number of American ex-pat sailors who have found that this is a safe harbour to hang out in.

Our steak sandwiches arrive, and my amoebas are now doing the mambo in my belly. I choke back half of what should be a delicious steak sandwich – and pass the other half on to Brent. I barely finish one beer as Brent disposes of his second. Something is wrong.

I have had the experience of being sick on the road. Once, I got food poisoning in Portugal. That was the single worst experience of my life. I had food poisoning one other time in Nova Scotia. That was the second worst experience of my life. The last time I was in Guatemala, I was relegated to bed by what I think was either some freaky mould spores or the use of DDT. But it wasn’t food poisoning.

I should have food poisoning. After all the street food, it’s no wonder that my guts are mixed up. I cross my fingers and hope that this is something minor. I don’t relish the thought of dry heaving for 24 hours in some hot and humid hotel room.

Brent goes up to the bus station and takes care of arranging our passage to Flores. It is Q150 for a premier bus that is scheduled to depart at 2. We pass the time in the Crow Bar, chatting with Jose.

At 2, we walk a short distance to the bus station, which is really an office near the main road. There is nowhere to sit, other than on the ground. The heat is peaking now, but I am feeling no worse.

At 2:15 there is no sign of the bus. Nor at 2:30. At 3, a woman from the bus office tells us that the bus has left Guatemala City late, due to traffic. Big surprise there.

Finally, at 3:30, our premier bus arrives. There is lots of room, but both the air conditioning and the video system are not functioning. For entertainment, I stare out the windows. The amoebas are now staging their microorganism production of Chicago.

Fire is used here to clear land. Thick smokes hang everywhere, and combined with the heat, makes for a pleasant experience. The bus, which is supposed to be direct with no stops, stops frequently. We assume that the driver is making a little extra by making deliveries while running his route. I drift off as the amoebas continue the song and dance.

Flores, Guatemala:

This times the bus stops in the centre of town. We hop off and are immediately pounced on by a “fixer,” who I am sure tried to fix us up back in 1999. He refuses to leave us despite our protests that we have a hotel, know where to eat, and have been here before.

He walks with us all the way to the hotel. We’re back at the Hotel Mirador del Lago where the prices are very affordable. Q70 (US$10) for a double; Q40 for a single.

We get the same room we had a few days ago. With no airflow, it is hot. Brent wants to go find dinner and adventure, but I elect to crash and see if the Amoebas will close up shop. I drift off and sleep through the night.

- 30 –

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Nothing new to post today. I'm in getting prepped to meet with the CBC tomorrow, and have lots to do.

I hope to have the events from April 27 up in the next day or so.

The planning for the next trip continues. I am hoping to have a short layover in Toronto before I go to Copenhagen and embark on the Great Baltic Border Expedition. What's that, you ask? Why, another goofy roadtrip across Poland, Kalingrad, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Russia. Perhaps even Belarus. We're set to leave Copenhagen on the 9th of July.

Of course, details from the early part of the journey will be posted here -- but I'm sure I will fall behind in short order.

Also, I decided that digital photography still has a long way to go. I'll be back to shooting on film, which means no pictures until I return to Canada.

And, if you're looking to hire someone, for anything, HIRE ME!

Monday, May 12, 2003

Note: These tales are still in a rough form. You will probably come across lots of spelling errors and bad grammar. Do not fear it. I simply am doing a brain dump, 2 weeks later, and it is more important to get it out than to spel corextly. And with that, I present the following:

Saturday April 26, 2003
“Where 40 begins”

Livingston, Guatemala

Today is the big day. And at first, I don’t even think about it. As we prepare to start another day, Brent welcomes me to 40. 40. Big number. Bigger meaning. But does it really mean anything? At the moment, it doesn’t even seem an issue. I am so detached from reality that nothing seems as it should. And that is why I am here: not to run away from the clock, but to be doing something I like to do, and something that is memorable. Or would be if we didn’t drink so much beer.

This day marks another significant: there is a stag back in Vancouver for a good friend of mine. It's due to be a barnburner, and I wish I could be there. But I also know that if I were, I would be as much of a target as the groom-to-be. I would be forced into a dress and forced to march through rough bars singing George Michael songs.

I am lucky.

Despite the early hour, the main street is lined with dozens of stalls selling everything from mangoes to soap. Brent points out how unlike Guatemala Livingston is. The majority of the population is black and the town feels like it should be in Belize. There is not a Guatemalan flag to be seen. Yet Spanish fills the air. I scan the various stalls for hot sauce. I have become a hot sauce freak, and I find the stuff that comes from this part of the world to be the best.

We make a return visit to Tilingo Lingo, searching for breakfast. The town is quiet, except for the dance music being blasted from our destination. It’s never too early for bleeding ears.

We order the omlette with secret spices, which turns out to be great. No surprise, as TL is turning into our favourite joint for grub. The music is finally turned down to “really loud” when our waiter is replaced by another. He heads off to crank stereos in the rest of the town. They probably call him Cranker behind his back.

Exploring the town, we pass a huge cemetery where many of the crypts are painted blue and pink. It is a very colourful place of death. This could be a welcome trend in North America. In fact, I have written in my will that I want a burgundy coloured crypt with a yellow cross.

Further up the road is another surprise: a Moorish looking cluster of buildings painted blue and white. They are quite striking, nestled in palm and coconut trees as they are.
A sign on the front says “The African Hotel.” We walk inside to the main reception area. It is beautiful too, with lots of hardwood and vaulted ceilings. We ask the rate, which turns out to be cheaper than the Rio Dulce – only Q70 (US$10). The grounds keeper takes us for a tour and shows us one of the rooms. Again, lots of white, high ceilings, and ornate doorways abound. There is Arabic writing etched into the walls, and it truly feels like we are in Morocco.

I get the impression that this was some sort of Muslim mission, but the groundskeeper says that the place was built as a hotel and has always been a hotel. I still find it hard to believe, but you never know. There are few people here, and we ask about the clientele. Mostly tour groups, the groundskeeper says.

We are tempted to pull up stakes and move here, except that we’ve already paid at the Rio Dulce and this place is a lot off the beaten path. It’s just a sketchy enough neighbourhood that at night, 2 boobs walking home from the bar would make a great target.

Walking back to the centre of town, both of us are melting. We pass a restaurant that looks inviting. The entire front opens onto the street, and it is dark with many ceiling fans whirring madly. We pop in, grab a table, and order a refreshing beer. It is 10am.

Since there isn’t much to do, we figure that doing this will do fine. It is relatively comfortable when the fans are running. They stop every now and then when the power goes out. And the power goes out a lot here.

The owner of the restaurant is a huge black/Indian woman dripping with gold. She is friendly to us, but not too pleased when her family begins to squabble in the kitchen. This is providing fine entertainment for us, and we order another round.

I am flicking through the stored images in my digital camera to try and free up some room. Digital cameras are great until you run out of space. And I have. And I have no means to download the images to open up more space in the camera. The display on the camera is decent, but it is too small to determine whether an image might be slightly out of focus. Since I have been shooting multiple shots of the same image (just in case), I am now faced with the task of deleting some of them. I order a beer.

A crackhead passes and notices my camera and me. Great. She wanders up and asks if she can see the pictures. I tell her no. This, of course, is not very effective and she breaks into a song proclaiming her love for America. That certainly isn’t going to work on me. I ignore her while Brent chuckles to himself. Finally she gets the hint and continues down the street singing her “I love the USA” song.

It’s time to find lunch. We head to a side of town we’ve not yet explored. Brent, in his search for cheap beer, local haunts, and cheaper food, leads us into a bar with a couple of guys sitting there. There is no food here, so we ask if there is anywhere nearby. One of the guys offers to lead us to food.

After walking a couple of blocks, we end up near where we started. Our guide points to a structure that is politely described as a shack. Tourist unfriendly bars in Guatemala are really little more than a few sheets of plywood topped with a metal roof. Bare wires hang from the walls, and cockroaches and geckos scurry about doing their business.

This particular bar is like that. Open on two sides, so as to get some airflow. It also has a covered patio and a fridge that runs when there is power. The woman behind the bar is Jamaican. We sit and chat with her as we take shelter from the sun.

A little while later, a little man walks in and introduces himself to us. Danny is wearing a flowery shirt and sports short dreads and a little red hat. Despite the early hour, he appears to be operating on more than a few drinks. Another adventure is about to begin.

Danny sits down at our table and begins telling us the story of his life. We order a round of cheap rum and he shows us how to drink it with salt and lime. The whole concoction is rather awful. The salt makes it worse. Think of doing tequila shooters with antifreeze instead of tequila.

Danny tells us about growing up, living in Livingston, his German wife, and so on. We have our doubts about the German wife, but he peppers his stories with German words, so maybe, just maybe, he’s not spinning tales for a couple of naïve tourists.

I ask for directions to the loo, and Danny points to a tree in the back yard of the bar. There is also an outhouse here, and I choose that over the tree. The outhouse sports a stack of old newspapers and a concrete “toilet” which has no seat. For my purposes, this will do fine. But this may be the most basic loo I have seen with the exception of the woods.

On the way back to our table I spot an outdoor bedroom. A bed is propped up on milk crates, and a tarp hangs a few feet above it. It is open on three sides. I wonder if this is Danny’s home.

After a while, Danny seems really hammered. His stories are ramble, his gaze becomes distant, and we begin to make escape plans. This is easier said than done. Having met us, Danny knows a good thing. Brent and I pay the bill, and wander back to the main street, Danny in tow.

He wants us to go with him somewhere on the other side of town, but we want to get on with the day and find something to eat. We stand in the middle of the street, mired in indecision. This is too much for our wobbly friend, and he teeters off in search of something more interesting. Our ruse has worked. We immediately bolt the other way, and head back to the restaurant beside the bar we have just left.

Again, this place is much like the bar; little more than a shack. We both order the stewed beef, and cross our fingers that this isn’t mile one on the road to food poisoning. When the food comes, it is piled high and accompanied with a bottle of green hot sauce.

We tuck into what appears to be safe food and are delighted when we discover how good it is. And how good the hot sauce is. This is probably the best meal that we’ve had on the road. And I don’t think this is because I’ve permanently damaged my taste buds on cheap Guatemalan rum.

The afternoon passes quickly after our lunch. We wander around exploring and sweating. Surely the sweating will counteract the intake of beer.

It is suppertime. We are back at the Tilingo Lingo where something weird is going on. Someone has left the braided-hair girl-cloning machine on. In a scene from what could be a modern version of “The Stepford Wives,” the restaurant is filled with at least a dozen women all sporting the tight hair braids and similar clothing. They might all be going to the disco up the road, but it is still a strange site. There isn’t a cheap cruise ship to be seen. By the time our disappointing meal arrives, the Stepford crowd has disappeared into the night.

Later on, Brent crashes while I go to the internet café to be a geek. To my surprise I find a number of birthday greetings in my inbox. After a reading them and doing a quick check of the news, I decide to go for a stroll down to the main dock. I suppose I am in a bit of a melancholy mood, thinking about my life and what I have done with it.

I am interrupted by pretty young woman who asks me if I speak English. When I answer yes, she tells me a long story about how she and her boyfriend were robbed, and that all the banks are closed, and her parents in California are sending money, but they can’t access it until… and on and on.

Now, having lived in Vancouver for 5 years, I am no stranger to strangers spinning yarns about why I just have to fork over some money. And I have learned that all these tales are just scams.

Thus, it is no surprise that I instantly dismiss her pleas for financial assistance as a scam. I confirm my suspicions when she resorts to well timed tears.

I put myself in her supposed position: what would I do if I were robbed in Guatemala? I certainly wouldn’t beg for money from tourists. I would demand that the hotel where I was robbed would offer me free room until money arrived from home. Or, failing that, I would suck it up and sleep outside in a hammock for a couple of days. I definitely would not target my fellow travelers, appealing to their soft hearts. Still, she was so well dressed and appeared to be so honest.

I dismiss her, and pushing the guilt away, and walk home. I head up to the balcony of the hotel, squeeze into a hammock and swing back and forth as the world goes by. And I wonder about that girl. After an hour of this, I return to the room, and this first day of being 40 comes to a close.


Saturday, May 10, 2003

And now the events from April 25th in Guatemala. My apologies for any errors in English language usage and spelling. The important thing is the tale to be committed to paper before it disappears into the black hole that is my memory. With that in mind, grab a rum and start reading!

Friday, April 25, 2003
Flores, Guatemala “Of Bo Duke, Puss Puss and Bank Promotiions”

Due to the heat of our oven, or hotel room, we have woken up early. Today is a travel day and the destination is Livingston, Guatemala.

The first order of business is to find some sort of meal. We pop into a small restaurant after comparing posted prices. Brent has this thing for finding the cheapest meal. We spot of place offering breakfast for the equivalent of a couple of US dollars. Which, come to think of it, is not that much cheaper than what I can get back home in my neighbourhood greasy spoon. But then, my greasy spoon is not in Guatemala either.

I order up the Huevos Rancheros, beans, café con leche (coffee with cream), and OJ. Perhaps this is a better deal than at home, where the “HamScram” is nothing more than some greasy eggs and a slice of luncheon meat style ham/salt lick.

The restaurant is nice, featuring primary colours on the wall (Look! Red! How foreign!), exposed rebar, and a ladder in the middle of the dining area that leads to a loft. Handy place to live, I suppose. I sneak a peak into the kitchen. It is huge, with a big cauldron of fire and witches dancing around it. This is going to be one tasty meal.

But it is not. The eggs run more than a marathoner. But, as Brent points out, it was cheap. Using his logic, the amoebas that I have probably just ingested are a nice value added.

At the bus station we fork over US$21 for our tickets. This pays for not only our ride to Rio Dulce, but for the chance to sit around a hot bus station – really an office – surrounded by Germans and their packs. I’ll let you guess whether or not they were annoying.

The bus is not of the chicken variety. We’ve decided that as much as we want to rough it, the comfort of a large Euro styled bus complete with movies and air conditioning – and one that doesn’t stop at every village along the highway – is too much to pass up.

The Germans get on and immediately set out to complain. They move from chair to chair, in search of the perfect source of air conditioning. They are miserable. We chuckle because we know that the air conditioning is broken. When they say there is air conditioning, there never is. We’re also late leaving, which is driving the Germans to near suicide.

After departing Flores, we head south. The televisions throughout the bus light up. We have high hopes for a good Spanish film about the crucifixion of Christ starring Lorenzo Lamas. We’re thrilled that the film selection is even better.

It is a film about the evil powers of lightening (not the Michael Jackson sort) starring Gary Sandy (from WKRP fame) and Luke Duke. Or was it Bo Duke. It was the one that thought he could launch a country singing career. Or was that Boss Hogg? Please excuse the 1970’s culture references, but keep in mind that I am but 2 days from turning 40.

The movie is wonderful, filled with bad scripting, predictable plot devices, plodding action, and alliteration a plenty.

Because this is a premier bus, we get served lunch. It stands up well against the synthetic food-like items found on modern airlines. We are served ham and cheese on a bun, sugar drink, and a item that might have been fruit at one time.

A second movie comes on: Formula 51 starring Samuel L. Jackson. Or should I say, POOR Samuel L. Jackson. It is an action flick in the style of Guy Ritchie. Even while it is playing, I can’t remember even one facet of the plot. It may very well have not had one.

With no air conditioning, the bus is hot. Not hot like a blast furnace, just hot like a fireplace. There are carrot coloured curtains hanging in the windows, shielding us from the supernova outside.

There are only a few other people on the bus other than the Germans and us. A small woman is snoring away. A large man is yelling on his phone. I think is a government official, judging by his loudness.

I peek behind the curtains and see Guatemala flying by at an alarming rate. The blur looks like it might be a mountainous landscape. We slow to warp speed upon entering a town that is hosting a fair consisting of nothing more than materials advertising the local Gallo brand beer.

Brent breaks the vision with another idea: write a screenplay about someone who takes over an email account and eventually drives the rightful owner to suicide. Okay….

After about 4 hours, we pull into Rio Dulce, Guatemala. This is the end of the line, or the beginning of the journey depending on which way you’re facing. We get off the bus, waving heartily at the frowning Germans, and walk towards the local dock. It is here that we must catch a boat to Livingston. It is cut off from the rest of Guatemala by the fact that there are no roads that go there.

We need to catch a water taxi that will take us on an hour-long ride across Lake Izabal and up to the Caribbean Sea where Livingston is perched. Not finding immediate transportation, our attention is captured by a small bar named Crowbar. It is subtitled “Call of the Gallo.” Gallo is the local beer brand, but also Spanish for “rooster.” I can’t figure this one out without a beer.

We take place on the patio, shaded from the heat. Judging by the rate at which I am losing fluids through profuse sweating, I estimate it to be 4200 degrees Kelvin. It is probably close to 40 C.

The owner of the bar, Jose Lopez (who we will get to know better, later) explains how the water taxi system works. Rather than going every hour, the boat owners wait until they have a full load. Arriving early in the morning means a fairly fast departure. Arriving in the middle of the afternoon means waiting around. Lucky for us the beer is ice cold, Jose serves food, and the beer is ice cold.

As we wait for out boat, we see a stream of ex-pat American sailors who have dropped anchor here. They are well behaved and we are unable to mock them. There is not a black sock/sandal combo to be found. There are also a couple of Canadians armed with a guidebook. Brent asks to borrow it to look up Livingston details, and they ask for 10 Quetzals to read the book, 20Q to take their pictures. We’d been missing that sense of humour.

The bar is completely open to the outside, with the exception of the kitchen. It is a shrine to sailing – with yacht club banners hanging here and there. Both a Canadian flag and a Canadian Coast Guard flag are stapled to the ceiling. There are also some woodcarvings of house facades – the most interesting of which had “No Mas Guerra” (No More War) written on it. One tends to forget that civil war ripped this place apart not that long ago.

Our boat is full minus 2 places for us. We throw Jose some cash and sprint to the boat. We wave goodbye to Rio Dulce (Sweet River) as our little boat takes off. We are still clutching our beers.

We head across the river to a marine gas station. After filling up, the captain has trouble starting the outboard. After numerous attempts, it finally catches and in no time we are hauling across Lake Izabal at a good clip.

I it a beautiful journey – the jungle is a vivid green and dotted with thatched roof homes and thatched roof resorts. Little skiffs zip around the shore, taking the locals shopping and visiting. At one point, we come to a thermal hot spring and the boat stops so that a couple in the boat can hop into the billion-degree water to be cleansed of evil spirits and skin. Have you seen the Robbie Williams video where he peels off his skin?

The engine won’t start. Ka-chugga. Ka-chugga. We’re starting to wonder if it’s going to take some money to get it started. Brap-brap-brap. It goes and we’re powering across the lake again, en route to Livingston.

After crossing the lake, we continue up a wide tributary that leads to the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps this is the Rio Dulce? I’m not quite sure. But it is stunningly beautiful. Behind the walls of green vegetation tower Honduran mountains barely visible through the haze.

As we near Livingston, the number of fishing boats, water taxis, and personal craft increases dramatically. This is very much a water-based community. The ocean spreads out before us and the town clings to the eastern reaches of Guatemala.

Livingston, Guatemala….

The water taxi pulls up to the public dock. It is loud and crowded and plastered in beer adverts. Brent and I grab our belongings and set out to climb the very steep street that leads up into the town centre. The roads are concrete and new, making me wonder if there is some kind of a special tourism infrastructure program has swept through.

As we launch into a climb that would make Sir Edmund proud, new friends surround us. Need a hotel? Need a cab? Where are you staying? Exchange money? Bag of weed?

Most of our new friends drop off quickly, except for one, who is intent on getting us a place to stay. Repeated mentions that we have a place to stay do nothing to dissuade him.
It is only when we, near death, climb the steps of the Hotel Rio Dulce, that he buggers off.

Cheap continues to be the order of the day, and our double room fits our budget: Q80, just over C$15. We’re pleased with our accommodation and the entertainment when the manager of the hotel starts ripping into a woman selling stuff on the porch of the hotel. In Italian. We look at each other, shrug, and go off to deposit our stuff in the room.

We thought it was hot before. This is beyond hot. And humid. Even after a shower, beads of sweat instantly re-appear. I look like a zebra with all the lines of salt stains on my clothes. I don’t know if I have ever experienced weather like this. The locals tell is it is unusual. I wonder if there is anywhere on Planet Earth where 100% humidity and 110 degrees is normal. A coke oven, perhaps.

A little while later, we are heading towards the other side of town, which is easier since its downhill. Brent’s search for the best beer deal is on. The main road leads past all sorts of homes. Some colonial in appearance, with heavy bars and gates. Others little more than shacks topped with corrugated zinc.

Main Street comes to an abrupt end at the Caribbean Sea. We turn left and follow the shoreline past several shack bars. Brent is doing the math – 2 litres of Tecate Q26. 3 Gallo Q17, and so on. We discover the correct combination of cheapness and location: a little place right on the water’s edge, coconut trees above us and comfortable seats below us. This is damn close to paradise. We sit there and let the experience waft over us.

I can hear my stomach cry out. We’ve both neglected to eat in some time, and this must be taken care of. Walking back along the beach we spot a place called Tilingo Lingo. It looks suspiciously like a place that caters to tourists. Who cares? We need food.

So we order a couple of Gallo, which is ice cold. Perhaps the coldest beer to be had in Livingston. It is also a few centavos more expensive. Outrage!!

The woman that owns the joint is friendly and tells us a bit of her story. She is originally from Mexico, and now living here with a local man. The menu is quite diverse, but she recommends the chicken curry. Sold. While we wait, we are entertained by the house cat, Puss Puss.

Night has fallen and we are now passing by the main bank in town. There is a huge crowd, and a semi trailer piled high with speakers blocks the road. It is some kind of cheesy promotion for the bank, and they are blasting the music in an attempt to lure new customers. If my bank did this, they would lose me as a customer. The crowds seem less interested in savings accounts than the prizes being given away. The bank is smart though – they give the prizes away slowly, thus ensuring that the blasting music will go all night.

We squeeze through the crowd looking for an internet café. After a quick news and mail check, it is time to find the Vancouver Canucks playoff hockey game on TV somewhere. This was easy in Belize where we had access to ESPN and ESPN 2. Guatemala is a different story,

A disco on the main street has a television. The entire joint is lit with black light, and everything glows eerily. Even my sweaty brow. I order a gin, just for the fun. After explaining to the woman behind the bar that we want to control the TV, she says that the channel has never been changed. We plead our case and before long she is teetering atop a chair, flicking through the channels. She lands on ESPN Espanol. We celebrate with a glow in the dark cocktail. Or was it a beer?

Game time, and we are ready to watch a little hockey in cool comfort. The other patrons who have come in are watching the screen too, probably wondering why the channel has been changed. And then: disappointment. Soccer comes on.

Disappointed, Brent heads back to room while I head back to the internet café in a lame attempt to keep my blog up to date. But it’s closed. Beside the hotel is a restaurant that has a couple of internet terminals and cold beer. Perfect! I try and listen to the Canucks game with streaming audio, but it just crashes the computer. On the NHL site, I find that there is a page of updated stats. Not as exciting as actually seeing or hearing the game, but I am able to keep track of the score. It’s 1-1 when I decide that it is time for me to head off to slumber land in the sauna that we call our room.

I look at my leg – the scrapes from Pandy Hill seem to be healing, but still look terrible. This is not an attractive feature. And then I remember something else: this is my last day of my 30s. Is this a good thing or bad? Good, I think.

The room is sweltering. Brent is sleeping soundly despite the still screaming music from the bank street party. Luckily, this is Guatemala. And that means that there are frequent power cuts. And suddenly, the music stops. Saved! The fact that the fan stops too is a drag, but if I try hard, I can get to sleep before the music comes back on. It never does. The power returns, but I think the bank people have taken it as a sign from God that it is time to go home.


Thursday, May 08, 2003

FINALLY! More from Guatemala. Hop into the wayback machine and pretend it is Wednesday, April 23rd. Ready?! Zaaap!

Wednesday April 23, 2003 “Of Pandy, Hammered Boy, and Juan Carlos.”

“Ashee! Ashee!” yells Brent & Roh’s landlady. This human alarm bell is standing outside of my window beckoning to her cat to come in. When Miss Nell isn’t calling Ashee, she’s sweeping the back porch or tending her seven dogs. It’s 7am. And it smells like pee.

Morning begins with word that the Canucks have won. This is a good way to start the day. We’re off to Guatemala today, and I am packing as light as possible. I still seem to have some learning deficiency when it comes to how much stuff I need to bring with me. You’d think after all these years, I would have learned.

We walk down to catch our mini-bus at the Belize water taxi terminal. It is a decent day – not too hot. Yet.

Getting on the bus we are caught up in a group of crazed German backpackers who are all freaking about getting onto the bus. Because of the gaggle of Germans, we are forced to put our luggage up by the driver. A German, perhaps thinking we are Americans, makes some snide comment about the luggage belonging at the back. We ignore him and he responds with “They will not listen.”

Brent explains that it is impossible to move luggage to the back and everything is fine where it is.

Once we’re on the road, the most annoying of the two Germans removes his skanky shoes, revealing a bandaged foot that is oozing weird coloured fluids. With a self assured grunt, he places is weeping foot squarely atop Brent’s pack and the Canadian flag sewed there. Being polite Canadians, we decide to let this breach of travel etiquette go, electing instead to play mind games.

We overhear that they are planning to visit the Maya ruins at Tikal and don’t have a place to stay. Knowing that there is precious little in the way of accommodation there (and what there is is expensive), we talk loudly about the great places to camp at the main gate to Tikal. And the wonderful and affordable inns that dot the area. So there!

We also notice that the quiet one looks like someone pounded him. Not surprising considering their lack of social skills.

We’re bombing down the Western Highway at speed when suddenly a tire blows. Good thing that the driver wasn’t challenged with an out of control vehicle – we could have easily rolled. Or so we think.

Standing outside we are in the brutal heat and looking at the shredded tire. It’s funny how accepting you get when you’re in the third world. Bald tires? Who cares! Broken struts? Whatever! Leaky gas tank? Bring it on!!

I take the opportunity to whip out my camera and shoot some shots for a friend back in Vancouver. She is working on a documentary on a hydro electric project in Belize and asked me to get some shots. As luck would have it, there are plenty of power lines, destination signs, and differing views to capture.

A little bit later a balder than bald tire has allowed us to continue. We pull up in San Ignacio, a town in the west central part of the country. It is much nicer here than in Belize City. We get settled into an affordable little place called the Tropicool Hotel. The manager is rather, um, firm with his rules. No this. No that. It’s like a prison. But it’s cheap AND it’s clean. And cleanliness is almost as important as cheapness.

Brent and I head next door to Eva’s – a small pub & restaurant run by Bob, an ex-pat British soldier. There are lots of ex-pat British soldiers here, due to the fact that Belize was a British colony until 1982. I think a lot of them decided that mangoes, palm trees and sun were a much better alternative to the industrial north of Jolly Old.

Bob is a cool guy – short and balding, and is often hunched over a computer building a website dedicated to his military unit. People come and go, and everyone seems to know Bob. And now we know Bob.

Brent has been raving about his excellent history of ordering stewed pork here. Recently he has been disappointed, so this is a test. I order the same and find it ok. American sized portions of rice and beans, but a little skimpy on the pork. Still, for a couple of bucks, it’s just fine. And the beer is still about a dollar.

There are several things to do while we are here. Thing number one: shoot a feature for CBC television (a kids show) on Pandy, the host of a kids show in Belize. What makes this interesting is that the TV station is lower than low budget. It is basically a homebrew collection of home video gear that is attached to a transmitter. But hey, it works.

Pandy, his real name is Kent Pandy, is an affable Belizean who has been doing The Pandy Show for 11 years. He doesn’t get paid for it, and until recently, he did everything: camera, sound, host, get prizes, direct. You name it. He still does nearly everything, except now he has a technician switching between cameras.

On the day we meet Pandy, he is dressed in his work clothes. Pandy works for the station as a cable television technician. He stutters, speaks Creole, and has a great outlook on life. And the kids (and adults) of San Ignacio love him.

Brent and I meet Pandy at the station; a thatched roof affair perched atop the highest hill in town. There is an orchard of satellite dishes outside the studio and dust is kicked up as cars pass by.

We shoot the interview with Pandy outside the studio. Then we want to get shots of Pandy back in town getting prizes and walking the streets like the King of Kensington. Pandy tells us he is going to ride to town on his Pandymobile – an old beat-off motorcycle. When he tells us that the bike has no brakes, our eyes light up! This is going to be great television!!

We proceed to shoot various angles of Pandy on his Pandymobile careening down the quite steep road that leads to the centre of town. Pandy stops himself by dragging his feet – and it’s a wonder that he has any shoes left.

At the bottom of the hill, we set up a shot with Pandy lying on the ground & the bike on its side. His line: “Kids, don’t try this at home!”

After Pandy picks himself up, he heads to town while we flag down a cab -- an easy thing to do when you look like tourists. And I certainly do. Dressed in shorts, a flowery shirt, and bone white skin, I am the poster child of the goofball tourista. At least I don't have a camera hanging from my neck.

In the centre of town we grab shots of Pandy interacting with everyone, picking up prizes, and explaining to us the cooling wonders of “ice” – which is like a snow cone. Considering the oven hot temperatures and our slowly melting skin, enjoying an ice is like winning the lottery.

It’s getting close to airtime, so Pandy has to take off. Brent and I hire another cab and head back up the hill to the studio. As we’re standing outside, a total dread-man comes wandering our way with a guitar. The dread-man is actually Lyric Man… and he is the guest on the Pandy Show tonight. Brent has seen Lyric Man before – and tells me that he’s great. I feel blessed: CBC wanted a lot of humour in this piece, and Pandy and the Pandymobile and Lyric Man are sure to provide lots of comedy.

Inside the studio, the clock is showing that we are late. The show goes at 6 and it’s about 5 after. Pandy explains the concept of Belize time: the main theory of which is that time is but a suggestion.

The studio is a collection of old home video cameras and a snake’s nest of cables. The technician appears calm, with an ID and music being broadcast to the waiting audience. Finally, as the clock hits 6:14, we’re ready to go. Pandy is sitting at a desk with the Spanish words “Lunes Deportivo.” I believe this means Monday Sports although it could mean Loonies Deported. In front of Pandy is his collection of prizes to give away: binders, shampoo, and a dolly. Lyric Man is sitting beside Pandy, his head topped with a Rasta coloured knit hat. Three kids, brought by the tech, are on a nearby couch. They are really excited. And it turns out that two of them are 8. And one is the other’s aunt. Work that one out!!

The countdown begins. 3…. 2…. 1. We’re live!

And there is no sound.

Back to the station logo and music – as the tech runs to check a wire. Nothing. Pandy gets up from his chair and starts plugging and unplugging cables. Enigma’s “The End of the Innocence” plays in the background.

After what seems like a year, they finally solve the problem (an unplugged cable) and are ready to go live. Lyric Man bangs out a Pandy Show theme song. The kids clap. And Pandy is on the air in Belize!

Over the next half hour or so, Pandy takes calls from kids – who speak English, Creole and Spanish. He gives away prizes, and Lyric Man sings a song about the alphabet – with only a couple of mistakes.

At the end of the show, we bid everyone goodbye and head back down the hill towards town. It has been a most bizarre experience and the story that we’ve captured will be hilarious.

As we walk down the hill, I turn to Brent and say how amazed I am that the whole day came together so smoothly. Just as I utter the words “the Gods were smiling upon us,” I lose my footing on the steep gravel road and end up going arse over teakettle down the hill. So does my video camera. Luckily, it doesn’t hit the ground too hard. It is enough to give it a wee dent.

I am a different story. Clad in shorts, I slide several feet on the gravel on my shins. Talk about pain. I have a 7-inch by 4-inch road rash that is full of dirt and stinging like mad. Is there a larger cosmic meaning here?

Back at the hotel I endure the pain of cleaning my wounds, and Brent endures the pain of hearing me clean my wounds. It is very sad.

Next on the agenda is a visit with Ivan Duran and his wife Katja. This is not to do the interview, but to just get an idea of what he is up to. We give him a ring and he offers to come pick us up.

Over several beers, we discuss the music scene in Belize, politics, and the recent elections. Katja hails from Montreal – and could become other great ex-pat story. At the end of the night they are kind enough to drive us back to the Tropicool and offer to drive us to Ivan’s studio (which is near the border) the next day.

It has been a good day.

Thursday, April 24, 2003 “The Border”

I managed to get a few winks after all, and the injury sustained on Pandy Hill is much less painful. Because of the heat, we are up quite early again. Brent and I head next door to Eva’s for a quick breakfast.

After that, we gather our gear and walk a couple of blocks to Ivan’s house. There we snack on some sweet breads and guzzle some amazing coffee. We talk with Katja about the art on their walls. The place is decorated like a gallery. Truly a creative house.

After catching up with the war news on BBC (a blessing), we hop in the car with Ivan and head west to his studio at Benque.

The studio is more like a complex: several buildings containing the offices for Stonetree Records, which is Ivan’s label. His family is well known for their printing business and that has helped Ivan weather the storms of business.

In the studio where he does most of his recordings, we are surrounded by all kinds of percussion instruments. Ivan starts to play some of his recordings and I feel like a kid in a candy store. Its one thing after another after another after another. I have never heard music like this: Garifuna drumming, female Garifuna singers, and the raspy poems of someone called GrandMaster.

The Garifuna people are blacks who are more Carib than the Creole. They settled in Belize, Honduras, and in the town of Livingston, Guatemala. Their music is quite amazing, and Ivan has recorded a lot of it. He is sitting on enough material to release 4 cds.

GrandMaster is the most amazing – Ivan brought Grandmaster into the studio and recorded him performing his poems with Garifuna drumming accentuating his words. Ivan was kind enough to let me record a couple of the tracks. Then we sat down and did an interview for CBC Radio.

The drummer on these tracks shows up at the studio. His name is Chi Chi Man and he is a Honduran Garifuna. He shows us the hand made drums he used on the GrandMaster recordings. This is truly an amazing vacation!

Ivan is like a little kid, almost giggling as he plays his collection of music. We can’t believe the quality or the diversity of this stuff.


Of course, what would one of my trips be without a visit to a border? We ask Ivan if we can leave our gear at the studio while we indulge my border addiction.

We’re heading towards a small village on the Belize-Guatemala border called Aranal. The unique thing about Aranal is that the soccer field lies on the border – thus every game played here is international. Possibly the only international soccer played in Belize.

I think that dust is the national colour in these parts. Everything is coated with a fine layer of off-white.
The Belize Defense Force has an office and lookout here. It seems a logical place to start, as we’re not sure where the actual line is, nor what the reaction would be if we strayed into Guatemala. The border here has been subject to much contention over the years, but recently things have simmered down.

The Belizean soldiers are friendly. They are members of the Dragon Unit, who are like a police-military hybrid. Corporal Roches explains the area and points out the landmarks that show where the border is. He takes out to the divided soccer field and points to the location of the actual border. There are no border posts, but there are the remnants of a cairn in the back yard of a Guatemalan family. Apparently cairns were placed every two km along the border, but the locals keep taking the stones. There are only three “real” border markers along the entire length of the line. Roches says that the one near the official crossing at Melchor says British Honduras on the Belize side. Belize was British Honduras before 1982.

After exploring the areas and taking pictures, we hop into a cab and tear back to Ivan’s place to collect our belongings. We bid him and Chi Chi Man adieu as we cab it towards the border. I am happy to have gotten a great interview with Ivan and the opportunity to hear music that probably would have remained unknown to me, if not for my wacky travels. Who needs the Lonely Planet guide? I can’t image traveling any other way.


There is a sight problem at the official crossing. Just day’s prior, some Belizean government official decided to ban citizens of 6 nations from Belize due to SARS. Canada was one of those. After much discussion, this was rescinded for Canadians, but the message was not being passed down to the worker bees at the border crossings. Upon leaving Belize, there was some question as to whether I might be banned from returning. Oh well.

Imagine being covered with honey and thrown into a pit of ants. That pretty much describes the scene of tourists and moneychangers at the border. They come running up screaming exchange rates and waving calculators. And having just gone through the immigration process for Belize, and facing the same for Guatemala, these guys know that you are in a weakened state. Hell, 7 quetzals for a US dollar sounds like a great deal. It’s not. Both Brent and I play the game and get better rates: approaching 8.

I am not as concerned with getting a good deal as I am in finding the rare border marker between the two countries. I look around in the no mans land between Belize customs and Guatemalan customs. No sign of it. We ask locals and officials. No one seems to know.

We pass through Guatemalan customs easily – and they don’t even try to charge us the special gringo tourist fee. After getting our passports stamped, we have to walk across a bridge to pick up a mini-bus to Flores. For some reason, we think that we’re going to find the marker near the bridge, even though we are a few hundred metres into Guatemala. Our search proves fruitless.


On the other side of the river, we are again attacked by moneychangers. And they’re offering an even better rate. Remember this for next time. We grab some snacks and water – we’re completely dehydrated due to the heat. Luckily there is a mini-bus that is set to depart for Flores, our next stop on the way to Livingston. It’s only a few hours, and the price is Q35 (about US$5 each).

The van is tiny, crowded, and the sliding door on the side not only has a kid hanging onto it, it is broken. Since there are a couple of square inches of room left inside, the driver trolls for more passengers. Eventually he gives up, and we start heading west. The kid is still hanging onto the door, outside of the van. I’m not sure if he’s cooling off, holding the door onto the van, or providing some sort of counter balance.

The windshield is nearly fully blacked out, with only the narrowest of strips to look at the road through. Sylvester the cat swings with a chicken from the rearview mirror. It is sort of an obscene vision.

Our bones are being shaken like a martini as we bomb down the terrible road. No pavement here: just rocks. This lasts for 50km when, suddenly, we are blessed with pavement. To our right runs a river that is dotted with groups of women doing their washing. Occasionally we swerve to avoid horses, pigs, dogs, and chickens.


We’re here. Almost. Flores is unique in that it sits on an island, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The town on the bank of Lake Peten is Santa Elena. And that is where the mini-bus deposits us. Brent and I hoist our packs onto our backs and set our to cross the dusty causeway. There is little room for pedestrians, especially extra large ones like ourselves. I think that with all the shaking, we have become Gumby like and are able to contort ourselves (like in the Matrix) to avoid large trucks and small motorcycles.

This is my second time here. I was here in late 1999 and early 2000 – and not much has changed. My road rash is making itself known again. I cross my fingers in the hopes that evil germs don’t find this back way into my bloodstream.

Our hotel is cheap. And relatively clean. Only the equivalent of US$10 a night. Or $5 EACH! God love Guatemala. Not only is it cheap, they sell cold litre bottles of Mexican beer (Tecate) in addition to the local Gallo. We unload our stuff, pay, grab some beer, and head for the deck. It has a great view of Lake Peten and we sit and relax as the sun slips from the sky.

After a litre of beer, it is evident that we need to find food. We head to the main drag of town and to a place we were at 4 years ago. Back in 99, we sat at a bar/store and were entertained by a little hellion named Rudy. He was the son of the people who owned the store and delighted in showing us his paper mache masks. That was cute. When he brought out the matches and started hurling fire at us that was not so cute. I think he must have been 6 or so back then.

So it was a big surprise when we ran across a little boy who looked very familiar. Brent asked if he was Rudy. He was. But he was much better behaved (no fire) and seemed totally uninterested in us.

After a pint, we headed next door for some nachos and quesadillas. We enjoyed the food with even more Mexican beer.

Brent had seen a sign offering an even better Tecate beer deal. Something like US$3.50 for 2 x 1 litre bottles. Hello! And they have a television, so we’re thinking that we can catch a little playoff hockey at the same time.

Everything is going great – we’re the only people in the bar and we have the remote. Life couldn’t be better.

Two rather drunk local men wander in and immediately take an interest in us. One has brought a bunch of cds and wants to play them for us. The bar tender takes out the Mana disc that has been playing in the background. He then mutes the TV. And then, as a peace offering, gives us a bowl of corn chips.

“Romance Songs” is scribbled on the CD that one of guys is holding up and asking, in Spanish, if we want to hear it. Confused, we don’t know if he’s trying to be friendly, introduce us to new music, or, pick us up.

The other one, we’ll call him Hammered, slithers into the seat beside Brent. He is obviously quite loaded. Both are drinking mixed drinks, and suddenly two litres of Tecate arrive, courtesy of CD boy. I’m sure I catch a wink.

There are many instances where knowing the local language is a great thing while traveling. This is one case where its not. Brent has made the mistake of talking to Hammered in Spanish. Now Hammered is basically humping Brent’s leg. Things get even worse when Hammered points to Brent’s crotch and asks what he calls his package.

CD boy asks me, in broken English, if I’m married. I say no. His eyes light up. Brent, wanting his leg back, mentions that I have a hot sister. This does not have the desired effect. Hammered moves even closer. CD boy asks why I am not married. Brent answers for me, saying my wife is dead. CD boy tells us that they are brothers. Right.

By now, we have totally forgotten about the television and are trying to choke down the beer in the hopes of beating a hasty retreat. Having experienced a similar experience 4 years earlier, I wonder if Flores is some sort of hot bed for Latin men seeking male tourists.

The beer doesn’t have a chance to warm up as we choke it back. The drunk guys are into their own bottle of hooch, and it appears that the liquor they are ingesting will become our saviour. Hammered is beginning to teeter and is having problems speaking and fondling. CD boy sees this and decided that it is time to go. Brent and I stare blankly at the TV, secretly saying prayers. Finally, they wander off into the night.


There was something good to come out of the event: two free litres of beer. Because of that, we decide that a walk would be a good idea.

On my previous trip I snapped a shot of a half torn down building. The façade was still standing, but there was no back wall. So the picture is of a window that looks out to Lake Peten instead the interior of a building. Brent and I decide that we want to try and find that building. Of course, it’s long gone, but still it gives us the chance to walk around a bit.

Another thing I love to do when traveling is to shop. For hot sauces. We enter every store we see just so I can load up on small bottles of liquid death.

We enter one small store and I almost faint. Standing before us is Juan Carlos. Juan Carlos was someone who crossed our paths four years ago. He was intent in picking one of us up. Especially our buddy Steve. This was quite amusing at the time as Steve is not the most accepting of alternate lifestyles. He looks directly at us and I am sure he recognizes us. Although he could be thinking “fresh meat!”

Brent wants to take a picture of Juan Carlos to bring back to Canada to give Steve as a wedding present. Brent has had more to drink then I have, so I emphatically say NO!

Our late evening stroll around Flores brings us to an internet café. It has been a while since we checked the CNN War (aka the War in Iraq). And it’s also a chance to send a couple of emails and perhaps have a short online chat with folks back home.

Juan Carlos walks in, and I bury my head. He passes by us, and sits in a corner by himself. I have no idea what he is surfing for, and I don’t want to know. But part of me wants to give him Steve’s email address.

Brent starts giggling and I look over. Someone has left their Hotmail account open as well as their MSN Messenger account. And there is someone on the MSN account. We fire off some silly lines but don’t get much of a response. This is probably due to the language barrier and “wanker” not being a commonly used Spanish colloquialism.

It is becoming obvious that this day needs to end. We walk back to the hotel, Juan Carlos nowhere to be seen, someone in Guatemala wandering why their friend in Flores keeps calling them a wanker, and I am happy to be on the road. Life continues to be good!