Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Sum

I spent about 8 months in total traveling and living in Latin America; traveled to 14 different countries - Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina were the only countries in which I spent more than 2 weeks. Uruguay was the country in which I spent the least am0unt of time...only 2 days. During the Central American part of the trip I visited all the Central American countries, save El Salvador, in only about 6 weeks. 6 weeks is not as much time as one would like, as the countries, though small, really do have distinct identities. This large distinction between the Central American countries is part of what made that part of my trip so great...the countries are small and easy to travel between, but different enough from each other to keep things interesting. Certainly the South American countries have distinct identities as well, but their sheer size makes it tougher and much more time consuming to travel between them, and as such takes some of the enjoyment out of it all.

As for my favorites...in Central America I really enjoyed Nicaragua - friendly people, beautiful scenery, safe, cheap, lots of things to do outdoors, relatively un-discovered by tourists. I would say many of the same things about Colombia, although it's not nearly as cheap nor as safe. Colombia is the one country I really want to go back to since I only spent a week there and only visited two places. I really kind of cheated myself by traveling Colombia the way I did - one week and I flew between the two sites. My one other big regret is that I never did a jungle tour to the Amazon. But, I suppose this gives me a couple of things to do in the future, and I most certainly will be traveling back to South America, hopefully sooner than later.

As well as traveling and familiarizing myself with these different countries, I had one other main objective: to learn Spanish. It has turned out to much tougher than I expected...and I know it wouldn't be easy...but I'm happy to say I did pretty well on that goal. I've learned that speaking Spanish effectively is going to be a lifelong endeavour that will require consistent effort through the years. Even after all that time I'm still far from fluent and even basic communication can be tough at times. At any rate, I was happy to have the goal of learning Spanish as that gave me something to do every day while traveling. Otherwise, I would have felt pretty bad about doing nothing but traveling for so much time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Garbage

Certainly, they have a different attitude to garbage here in Latin America...the attitude apparently being that they don't mind having it around them, filling up their yards and streets, and littering the side of every highway. Honduras was the worst I saw regarding trash. On the bus to SPS from Tegucigalpa the couple in front of me threw 3 bottles and two wrappers out the window. I can remember being appalled by the trash I saw on my first couple trips to border towns in Mexico...and not just appalled but a bit depressed and scared to think that many of the people who created the mess were intent on coming into my country. I guess it really wasn't that long ago when people regularly used to litter the highways in the States, but I can't imagine there was ever a time when Americans lived amongst garbage in their yards the way many of the people in Central America do. It's as if the technology of disposable goods has arrived before the technology to deal with the result. But then that's the case for us as well as we really don't recycle very well...we just hide it better in the landfills.

Many people will attribute the filth to poverty, or culture...i.e. it's not easy so clean it up when you have no trash bags to put it in. But then if you can afford a bottle of Coke you ought to be able to afford a plastic bag. Or perhaps poor people have better things to worry about than garbage, like where their next meal is coming from. But then, poor people in these countries are poor because there are no jobs and they don't work, not because they're too busy to clean up after themselves. I would posit that living in a litter-filled environment is not only unsanitary but also discourages progress in that a person is apt to be effected mentally living in filth...becoming less likely exert himself to better his station in life. Many of the Iraqis I worked with left trash all over the place, which I thought was disgraceful for a military unit. We didn't have a lot of luck changing that habit of theirs, and really didn't try that hard to change them, considering it a 'cultural' thing, and, of course, we can't try to change someone's culture. To me, attributing these practices to 'culture' is not helpful for dealing with the problem...it's just making an excuse for bad behavior.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Yucatan


Getting over to Mexico involved a 30 minute flight on a light aircraft. The plane came in, we got on board, the pilot moved a few people around, and we took off about 5 minutes after the plan had landed. It was cool getting to ride right behind the pilot and watch the gauges. One sees the tiny runway in the distance and wonders how we're going to get on it...thankfully, the runway gets bigger as you get closer to it.

As for the 3 days we spent in Mexico on the Yucatan Caribbean coast...well, let's just say the area has a well-developed tourist infrastructure. Saw the famous Mayan ruins at Tulum, the only Mayan ruins on a coast; beautiful scene with the ruins on the cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters and the narrow beach at the bottom of the cliff, which was taken full advantage of by the visitors. The whole scene seemed contrived though, with the walkways fully paved and roped off (other ruins I've been to you can climb all over), and the ruins themselves were so...clean, almost like a Vegas theme hotel or something. My cousin and I were joking that the whole complex was probably built 10 years ago to attract tourists to an otherwise unusable strip of beach.

Hit up Playa del Carmen for a couple days...'bout an hour south of Cancun. Amazingly, it was only a tiny village 25 years ago, but with the ferry to Cozumel leaving from the south side of town, it suppose it was inevitable it would grow, and grow it has. If not for all the different languages you hear being bandied about you might think you were in any number of beach towns back home in the States.

The six weeks in Central America ended with a cheap flight home from Cancun.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Belize


After the early morning trip to Tikal we caught a van over to the Belize border. It was a very easy border crossing, in that there was little harassment, honest money changers, and the immigration stations were reasonably close together. The first people we talked to were cab drivers looking to take us down the road to the nearest town...the taxi drivers didn't look much different from the people we'd been seeing in the rest of Central America, and for that reason it was a little strange at first to be speaking English - something we got used to very quickly.

Sadly, by the time we got to Belize City it was too late to get a boat or plane out to the Cayes. Our plan was to spend most of our time in Belize on the Cayes, which is where most tourists in Belize go...for good reason, as Belize City was not the kind of place you really wanted to walk around in the dark. At the recommended restaurant (recommended not only by our hotel desk clerk but also my tour book) I saw two different cockroaches scurrying around. At least we managed to get something to eat and get back to the hotel without getting mugged.

Took the hour-long water taxi out to Caye Caulker the next morning. The 'water taxi' is a large speedboat that makes pretty good time on the trip. As for Caye Caulker...after finding the first hotel we walked into suitable, we decided to take a look around the island and investigate another hotel that was recommended by my tourbook. After buying a beer at their bar we took a little walk out to the pool area and started hob-nobing with the small group of people hanging out and drinking around the pool. Didn't take long to find out that we wouldn't be getting a room at the hotel since the 16 rooms of the hotel were all rented out to the same wedding party.

Long story short, we ended up partying with the wedding party for the next three days, and even attended the wedding. The wedding had about 40 guests and I have to say I was proud to be one of them. The people you meet make the difference in the experiences you have...we spent 3 nights each on two different tourist-oriented islands, Roatan and Caulker. We really enjoyed one experience and not so much the other...precisely due to the great people we met on Caulker as opposed to the more locals' oriented circle on Roatan that we weren't welcome in.

As for Caye Caulker itself, it has a Caribbean atmosphere and is indeed very laid-back. The island has perhaps 1500 people, no paved roads, and no cars...although plenty of golf carts. The island is probably 45% African descendant (speaking Creole, or English when they need to, and providing any number of entrepreneurial services from tours to illegal drugs), 30% Central American immigrant (speaking Spanish and/or English and working in more traditional ventures like food and drink service, 20% tourist (speaking English more often than not and providing the currency lubrication keeping the island afloat), with the other 5% made up of Mayans (speaking broken English and/or Spanish - selling selling arts and crafts), and Chinese shopkeepers (speaking English...at least the numbers anyway, and selling everything else).

We took a fishing trip out to the famous reef, the second longest in the world, located about a mile offshore, and people were reeling in fish one right after another. I'm not much of a fisherman, but I enjoyed snorkeling and watching the weighted lines hit the water, sink to the bottom, get nibbled on by a school of fish, and then reeled in with a fish on the hook more often than not. We ate the fish on a deserted island, about as large as a basketball court, that's for sale for $60,000 apparently. video