24 May 2013

Options

I did not find Belize.  Belize found me.

In spring 2009, a skydiving friend took a Caribbean cruise for her honeymoon & -- like most adults these days – posted the photos on Facebook.  I glazed over most of them, but the caption “cave-tubing in Belize” grabbed my attention.  There stood the newlyweds, in calf-deep water, helmets & lifevests on, and a pitch black opening behind them.
I was sold.  I wanted to go.

However, at that time, my life in Australia had just commenced so Belize was swiftly forgotten.  Fast forward to summer 2012.  My mother & I had some extra cash and since 2013 was a celebratory year for her side of the family (my twin cousins would be turning 21; my aunt & uncle, 50 and I, 30) we began to research a cruise.  The majority of the tours docked at Caribbean places I had previously visited.  Out of the masses, one company included stops on the Honduran island of Roatan, Cozumel [Mexico] & Belize.

Three years after my original interest in Belize, cave-tubing sounded more appealing since my spring 2012 trip to Puerto Rico resulted in newfound awe for caverns. When I read about the Belizean on-land excursions offered by the cruise company, it was impossible to pick just one option – I wanted to do all ten! 

The idea simmered on the back burner in my mind.  Knowing a cruise would cost a chunk of change for my aunt/uncle/3 cousins I toyed with the idea of – once again – flying solo.  Meanwhile, I found someone other than my mother who was willing to put up with my psychotic, hypochondriacal ways… a boyfriend!

The boyf needed enlightenment though.  He mentioned The North Shore as a favorite hot spot of his. I was overjoyed to be dating a fellow traveler who surfed the beaches of Hawaii.  Unfortunately & hilariously, he was actually alluding to The North Shore area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In fact, he had never ventured outside of the United States of America. He was keen on cruising – which initially sounded cheap – but when we factored in the excursions & libations, the trip rose to a discouraging price.  Though thwarted, I did not give up on Belize.

My boyfriend was a beach aficionado – like myself – therefore I figured Belize would be an easy, short, baby step toward transforming my Steel City native into a world traveler!  Yet one issue still remained: he was a notorious procrastinator.  By early December 2012, I had given up nagging him to apply for a passport.  We both sat on the fence until later in December when Belize was featured on my daily calendar “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” I took it as a sign from God.  Over the holidays, I ironed out the details & we were finally prepared to commit, but – unbeknownst to us – still had a handful of obstacles to overcome.
I had been tracking airfare rates to Belize since before I met my boyfriend, and the only trend was that the price kept rising.  I thought flights often became cheaper as time wore on.  Not the case here.  Since the airfare to Belize through common carriers was asinine, we decided to use Priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price, but we still had to be smart about the process.  The website claimed it would not book a flight with more than 1 connecting flight.  Great!  We compared Cleveland, Akron-Canton, Pittsburgh & Columbus airports.  There were numerous flights – some red-eyes, some with a duration of 18+ hours, some that arrived very late into Belize City – but they all had 2 connections.  In fact, only one itinerary had 1 connection & it landed in Belize around 9:00.  That was our golden ticket.  Certain we would be booked onto this flight, we bid 50% off the listed price.

Denied. 

No drama. We upped the price by $50 USD.  Denied.  The better part of my New Year’s Eve was spent receiving the same dismal response.  When our bid was only $50 lower than the listed price, we thought there must have been something wonky about flying out of Akron-Canton.  Back at the drawing board, there was a similar scenario from Columbus, Ohio (meaning we could only be booked onto one flight with great times due to Priceline.com’s terms).  Though much further away, if we saved even $100 per person the drive would be worth it.  So, we bid on flights that departed from CMH.

Denied.

On the same merry-go-round, I could not determine why no bids were being accepted.  In the end, I blasted Priceline’s Name Your Own Price feature on Facebook, was so irate I wanted to punch someone, and had no tickets.  The challenge became a battle of wills, and I refused to let a website thwart my vacation!  It was time to get creative.
The next day I cross-referenced flying into nearby airports (in other countries) then taking a 10-hour bus ride from Cancun, Mexico.  However, the process was very sketchy. According to this helpful blog, (the only resource for bussing in the Yucatan area), every passenger is asked to pay a departure fee.  The blog notes adamantly protesting that you are “in transit”.  If the Spanish-speaking officer understands you, you may be admitted without a fee.  That’s a few hypotheticals.  Other travelers reported the corrupt border patrol confiscated passports until the hefty fee was paid.  Furthermore, the idea of traveling a deserted highway in the wee hours of the night with a bunch of other tourists seemed like a welcome mat for any bandits… a truly, plausible scenario in Central America.

Thereafter, I weighed renting a vehicle in Cancun, Mexico & driving south.  Though more expensive, a hire car would omit the bus’ stops & we needed one anyway whilst in Belize.  Yet, no rental chain (i.e. Hertz, SixT, Eurocar) would let us cross the border. Passing north [into the U.S.A.] was no problem, but south or east [into Guatemala or Belize] was considered entering Central America.  I found a local company willing to grant us passage into Belize, but their TripAdvisor reviews scared me away.
With less than a two month countdown – my boyfriend & I committed and bought our flight directly to Belize’s only international airport.  To do so, we each had to fork out another $120 in airfare, but saved ourselves hassles, time & worries in the long run. Isn't that worth more anyway?

17 May 2013

Thanks

“Risk more than others think is safe.
  Care more than others think is wise.

  Dream more than others think is practical.
  Expect more than others think is possible.”
-- Cadet Maxim
 
 
Although this is not the end of my web log, it is the end of detailing Puerto Rico.  Here are my generalizations to help ease the risk involved when navigating Puerto Rico (and, possibly, the world):

Tip #1  Intersections are generally well-marked.  All other road conditions: not so much.

Tip #2  A somewhat winding road on a map is actually a very winding road.

Tip #3  Haciendas definitely were not open in March.

Tip #4  Everyone was out to scrape some cash – you may very well go broke 50 cents at a time.

Tip #5  Most businesses explicitly refer you to someone else whether you asked for advice or not. For example, when I inquired about El Canon de San Cristobal, one company was happy to also arrange lodging for me at a place where they just so happened to know the owner.  This process defeats the purpose of a genuine recommendation!

Tip #6  A young woman in Puerto Rico will drive the Latin cassanovas loco a.k.a. crazy & could probably secure quite a few free drinks (amongst other things).

Tip #7  Often times roads split -- without warning.  To ease the sudden dilemma "left or right?" I always stayed on the road with the same type of pavement.  If you are on bumpy road, stay on bumpy road.  If you are on dark bitumen, veer towards the equally dark bitumen.

Tip #8  With all things of importance, the earlier you arrive the better the experience!

After she read about my rapelling/climbing excursion at El Canon de San Cristobal & its effect on my blood sugar, my Grandma Marilyn commented “For all the risks you take, it’s a wonder you’re still alive.”  It is a wonder – a miracle, in fact, for which I am grateful every day. 

On a whim I moved to South Carolina, having only been dating my [now ex-]boyfriend for two months.  Yes, it seemed like the perfect precursor to a Maury Povich drama.  My best friend, Angie, asked a lot of skeptical questions.  My coworkers cocked their heads and gave me their crooked mouth, that’s-a-horrible-idea look.  Even my usually-supportive mother shunned the move… but not my Grandma Marilyn. On the contrary, she was the only person in my life who condoned it.  Condone might not be the accurate word, but she certainly voiced her understanding & support for her eldest granddaughter fleeing to another state with her boyfriend.  I’m sure I did not acknowledge her impact at the time, but I was (& still am) so thankful for just having one person rooting for me.

Thank you Grandma Marilyn for vigorously reading my blog & singing its praises to the world. Thank you for the summers spent camping in Gualala, which taught me to enjoy nature’s company.  Thank you for collecting and displaying (in your home) driftwood, glowing sea glass, patterned seashells and other organic trinkets that captivated me more than I probably led on. Thank you for hoisting me onto the picnic table when we were chased by wild boars – it was my first encounter with untamed animals that I remember.
Throughout our existence as children – and into adulthood – we never fathom that our parents and grandparents had a life before we were born.  Recently, I learned that my grandmother flew from Ohio to California in a single-engine, single-prop Cessna.  Can you imagine leaving your entire family at home as you stepped into a flying tin can to cross 3,300 kilometers?  I think I know where my unbridled spirit stems from.

12 May 2013

Alone

“The man who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.”
-- Henry David Thoreau from Walden


 
The hours before my return flight to Ohio were winding down & I had an overwhelming feeling of contentment.  True, there were many regions of Puerto Rico I did not explore, but – in my opinion – I could sum up the trip in one word: owned.  It was a blistering day, I was full of platanos amarillos a.k.a. yellow/ripe plantains, and had nothing left to conquer. I simply wanted to relax by the ocean.

I remembered my previous vacation to Puerto Rico (which doubled as my first time to the country).  My ex-boyfriend and a group of his friends were already headed there for the long, Memorial Day weekend.  At 9:00 he invited me along; at 12:30 I bought my ticket; at 16:00 my mum drove me to the airport.  We partied at La Placita (a San Juan hot-spot), toured the Bacardi Factory and milled around the region.
I had an absolutely wonderful time playing jet-setter that holiday weekend & a few neighborhoods’ names stuck out in my mind.  Trying desperately to remember my past, I took the slower, less direct route toward Playa Piñones a.k.a. Pines Beach.  Through Isla Verde (where I slept last night) nothing looked familiar in the daylight. Condado was equally unfamiliar & I was beginning to lose confidence that I'd ever find these unidentifiable places.  On Condado's calle Ashford, a wide-open cement patio sorely stuck out as it was the only gap between the high-rises. Like déjà vu or having a recurring dream, the streets & background were fuzzy but not that specific spot.  I could not have drawn it beforehand, but when I saw the beachside tables I knew this was where my ex & I sipped on expensive Sangria with the rest of the group.
I did not park the car nor cast a second glance. One look was enough. The hard, gray patio juxtaposed againt the soft sand & blue sea affirmed that – in a former life – the younger, carefree me had left her mark here.  Further east of Isla Verde, Santurce & Condado, the condominiums and slums faded and were replaced with infinite ocean vistas a.k.a. views.  There were myriad of sand lots to pull into and eventually I inferred I was on the outskirts of San Juan.  As usual, three older, leather-skinned Puertoriqueños charged me $3 for parking.
In my travels around the country, Piñones was the most deserted playa.  I shared the crispy, beat up strip of sand with a fisherman – who soon left – and the surfers who floated more than they actually caught waves.  Later, a group of three boogie boarders meandered down the stretch of beach where I lounged & we struck up a conversation.  He too was a type one diabetic.  We discussed various topics and Erick gave me his number to meet for dinner, but – as I recorded in my journal – “I’ve been on my own for awhile now.” Basically, I did not even entertain the notion of celebrating my last night nor the company of someone else.

As the sunlight dwindled, the no-see-ums struck with a vengeance & I packed up the car one last time.  The same men minding el estacionamiento were still rocking in their chairs.  In Spanish, we briefly conversed about why I was leaving & when I would return. My responses were automatic, fluent and grammatically correct.  This week immersed in Latin American culture had immensely improved my language skills.

En route to the airport, I experienced another fuzzy recollection as friquitines a.k.a. streetside food vendors flew by the car window in a blur.  I smelled the grilling meat, I heard the jovial mariachi music, I saw the kiosks lining the beach & recalled the feeling of strolling Piñones with the Memorial Day group – drinks in hand & munching on cheap, pork kabobs from these same friquitines.  Like other things I encountered today, the friquitines were still here.  In fact, it was at Piñones the first time that I had an epiphanic moment: my ex-boyfriend cared nothing about my well-being. We could have been in bumfuck Ohio or the middle east. I was merely a pawn on vacation with him & Pueroto Rico was merely the backdrop in our melodrama.
 
To summarize Puerto Rico is to reiterate what I wrote all along: that traveling solo – while different & full of downfalls –  was actually affirming, positive and transformative.  I learned heaps about myself during my solidarity in Australia & the week in Puerto Rico.  Being anywhere alone means you must confront your fears & desires.  It means you are the whole kit-and-caboodle.  You are your own protector, motivator, nurturer, judge, navigator and best friend. You will find company or torment (and often both) in your private thoughts.
 
This time around Puerto Rico was much kinder to me. The decision to go was of my own volition & my affect was in a much more stable state. This time I was rocketing myself into the world to find something new & good, instead of hurling myself into a foreign country to reconnect with a flaky, ex-boyfriend.  It was humbling, rewarding and imperative to remember the old me & introduce her to the current me.

06 May 2013

Desperation

"Say that I was starved, that I was lost & weary, that I was burned and blinded by the desert sun, footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases, lonely and wet & cold, but that I kept my dream!"
-- Everett Ruess

I was in desperate need of a few things.  First, a real shower. I last properly bathed on the second day of the trip (after the bioluminescent bay although I jumped into fresh water at El Canon de San Cristobal on day 4).  Since that second day I had been sweating profusely & it was now day 6.  So, I flocked east to Playa de Cerro Gordo a.k.a. Fat Hill Beach which boasted “restrooms, showers, fire pits & other beach amenities.”

Second – and far more important – rest.  My body was showing signs of deterioration. On my left leg alone, I counted over 60 mosquito bites. Along with the large bruises from crashing the 125cc in Vieques, at least 10 more bruises decorated my shins & knees.  The bumps [which led to the backs my legs itching insatiably] had engulfed the entirety of my legs and spread to the tops of my feet.  Rubbing my legs felt like caressing a toad.  Additionally, my hands and arms developed red blisters & my feet were terribly swollen.

Although my body looked awful, I felt fine.  No headache, fever, chills nor pain – other than the muscle fatigue from abseiling and wrecking earlier in the vacation. I wanted to avoid a Puerto Rican hospital at all costs so I told myself I would stick it out two more days, at which point I would be back in the U.S.A.

Playa de Cerro Gordo was foreboding from the outside, where the streets were lined with peddlers & a tall, dark, metal fence.  However, after I paid the $2 entrance fee, there was a sprawling estacionamiento.  La playa itself was not as impressive as others on Puerto Rico, but the atmosphere was relaxing.  Spanish music blasted from stereos, the ocean lapped, children frolicked, & there were no bothersome bugs.  Perhaps the best – and simultaneously most torturous – part of sitting under the shade of the palm trees, was that all the nearby beach-goers were barbecuing.  Still living off of tuna salad, apples & basic rations (which had been my daily meals for the past three days) I was voracious, like a shark smelling blood, with one whiff of the chicken, steak & pork being grilled.
The day wore on peacefully & uneventfully.  I wandered around the deserted facilities for 20 minutes in search of the promised showers. Apparently the “showers” were open-air faucets lodged in a stone wall, simply meant to wash off with fresh water.  I probably looked odd as I toted my entire toiletry bag to the “showers” but I finally felt thoroughly clean afterward. 

I could camp at Playa de Cerro Gordo, but the vibe beyond the wrought iron fence of this balneario a.k.a. public beach  was disconcerting.  I packed the Toyota & drove east, through the golf-capital of Dorado, toward San Juan


At twilight, I entered the neighborhood known as Isla Verde in San Juan, which was a far cry from the central montañas:  fast food chains lined Avenida Isla Verde, high-rise condominiums blocked the ocean views, groups of well-dressed people crowded the streets, car horns honked, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic, & neon signs lit up the night. I changed into my fanciest outfit – gauchos, a plain turquoise tank top & flip-flops – and strolled into the bar area of el restaurante, Metropol.

The dining tables were full, but I was the only person at the bar.  Deprived of all amenities during my time in the interior of Puerto Rico, I imbibed a mango daiquiri.  That’s when Danny a.k.a. Daniel Jay, the second bartender, suddenly asked me where I lived.  This first question was the segway into a drawn out conversation that lead to Danny asking if I would like to go out with him tonight.  I declined – lying that my flight home was tomorrow – but the ever-persistent Puertorique
ño informed me he was planning on moving to New York City in a month & that maybe we should keep in touch.  I obliged and shoved the bill on which Danny wrote his full name, mobile number & email into my journal.


I planned on sleeping in the well-lit estacionamientos that surrounded Avenida Isla Verde, but every lot had security and charged hourly for parking.  Free-loading was not going to be so easy in San Juan  Next, I entered a residential area off the main drag where a familiar, ubiquitous sound returned to me: the chirp of Coqui frogs. Now dark, I wanted to relax here but I didn’t feel like I blended in entirely.  Since it was a Friday night, residents hung out on porches & visitors constantly pulled in & out of nearby houses.  If I saw someone sleeping in a car outside of my home I would call la policia.  I patrolled the busy avenue and two vehicles ahead of me, a truck vacated its curbside parking.  I swooped into the spot.  That night I probably slept the best & felt the safest, despite the non-stop music from the many bars across the street.

Sleeping in wasn’t an option as I wasn’t shaded by treetops or cloud coverage in San Juan.  Here, the sun shined and there wasn’t even a wispy cloud in the sky.  I drove into Old San Juan – a peninsula off the glitzy, resort area of the city that maintained its early colonial flare – and pulled into el estacionamiento enclosed within stone walls at Castillo de San Cristobal a.k.a. Saint Christopher’s Castle. 
 As one of the first visitors inside “the biggest European fortification in the Americas”, I ascended the multiple staircases & ramps to the rooftop (level 3) where I played soldier, peaking out from behind the embrasures and spying from the garitas a.k.a. sentry boxes.

On el castillo’s highest terrace, one sight broke up the monotony of cold, tarnished stone. Three white flagpoles vigilantly stood.  There was barely a breeze on this hot morning, and the flags limply laid: one American, one Puerto Rican & one unknown.  It turned out to be an antiquated Burgundy Cross symbol.  From here, I had a view, an expansive view of the area. A barge crept into Bahia de San Juan a.k.a. San Juan Bay, pastel buildings caught my eye, and the concentration of Old San Juan abruptly stopped at the Caribbean Sea.

From this vantage point I made out Castillo San Felipe del Morro/El Morro – the second, older fort commenced in 1539 – protecting the other corner of Old San Juan.  With the sun & mercury rising, I stepped inside the labyrinthine corridors of el castillo.  It wasn’t hard to imagine myself as a solider in the days of old, as I sauntered through the dimly-lit hallways, explored the barracks, and studied candid sketches from a desperate captain taken prisoner. I doubt the captain – in the last days of his life – knew his drawings would endure the test of time & that the fort would be a tourist highlight some 400 years later.
Everywhere I explored, within el castillo’s walls, wreaked of stoicism.  For example, tiny slits in the stone wall for firing ammunition let the faintest hints of daylight in; each window had been reinforced with thick wooden slabs (or boards entirely); rusted gates were still on their hinges; secret tunnels had been blocked; a monument of cannonballs was on display.  Even from the World War II observation post, it sounded like the sea relentlessly battered the fort.

Aside from the two castillos/forts, Old San Juan had much more architecture.  Scattered throughout the area were clean buildings with ornate details.  What buildings lacked architectural design, they made up for it in color.  Bright coral, sunshine yellow & other Caribbean colors decorated the already beautiful seaside town along with fountains and statues galore... even its graffiti popped with color!
After lunch at Horario’s – that came highly recommended from a local for its authentic cuisine – of mild pollo criollo a.k.a. Creole chicken and amarillos a.k.a. sweet plantains (amarillo meaning “yellow”, the yellow/ripe fruit) I felt I had conquered the dense neighborhood.  Across la bahia the non-historic part of San Juan extended into the Atlantic Ocean & with a few hours of daylight remaining, I had one last goal.  It was more of an emotional adventure:  I desperately wanted to find what I had forgotten a long time ago, on my first trip to Puerto Rico.