Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Final Installment

I've been back for a month and it seems that everyone thinks I should wrap up my blog. So, quick final thoughts:

Its good to have regular hot showers.
Its good to have a regular mattress.
I wish I still had my old hair.

Thats it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Scorching in Flores

Although you wouldn't think it because its tropical, most of Central America has a very pleasant climate. The land here is so mountainous that most of the major cities and attractions are at considerable elevation and are wonderfully cool. Sadly, this is not true of northern Guatemala. The city of Flores is near sea level and is ridiculously hot. Its like Southeast Asia again - I feel like I am perpetually drenched in sweat and I'm working on my seventh liter of water for the day. My food expenses for the day will end up at 40 Quetzals (about 5.50), while my water expenses are already at 42 Quetzals and counting. This is ridiculous.

Part of the reason for my profligate water use is that I hiked around the Mayan city of Tikal for 6 hours. The city contains lots of rather tall temples, in the 40 to 60 meter vicinity. As the jungle has reclaimed large sections of Tikal, the view from the top of the excavated temples was phenomenal. There would be four or five other temples poking above the jungle, and nothing else but green for as far as the eye could see. I've found that ruins are usually hit or miss, with the majority missing. That said, its still worth checking them out, on the off chance you get a view like the one from the top of Temple IV in Tikal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Best Sports Bar Ever

I'll start this post with something that is not at all about sports, but was pretty damn cool nonetheless. I hiked Volcan Pacaya today, an active volcano near Antigua in Guatemala. I've been to active volcanoes on this trip before, but they weren't all that exciting - usually just a nice view of the surrounding countryside and a vaguely smoking crater. This volcano was very different. There was lava flowing down one side of it, and when we reached the crater, there was an open hole with lava spouting out every few seconds. The ground was very warm and the air felt like the inside of an oven. Very cool stuff.

So, I returned to Antigua intent on getting a few errands done. I managed to find a working ATM, got a nice apple strudel from a local bakery, exchanged my old books for a couple of Michnener titles I haven't read yet, and even found a copy of the Economist. Basically, its one of those days where absolutely everything is falling into place.

Finally, I decided to check the local sports bars on the off chance that one of them might have the Sox game tonight. Granted, its against Kansas City, but I still figured it was worth a look. I struck out at the first two sports bars. I walked into the third one and saw the following numbers on the wall:

1 4 8 9 27 42

Needless to say, I'm feeling very optimistic about my chances of watching that game tonight.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Diving The Haliburton

I've spent the last 5 days on Utila, one of the Bay Islands in Honduras. It seemed like a good place to go after spending a week learning Spanish (the island is English speaking) and had some very cheap diving courses. I came here intending to do a quick two day wreck course before heading off to Guatemala. Of course, this somehow morphed into a five day combined naturalist course, so I've spent the past five days identifying fish and running reels through sunken ships. The brilliantly named shipwreck Haliburton was intentionally sunk in Utila seven years ago to create a local wreck site and, consequently, is a perfect site for teaching divers proper wreck diving techniques. At the same time I attempted to learn 120 local fish species.

The wreck diving course was not my finest endeavor. While I managed to reel out lines in a competent manner, I also managed to lose my dive buddy in the wreck, despite the fact that we were only in the wreck for a couple of minutes. We also managed to collectively kick up enough silt to reduce visibility to nearly nil. While I'm now qualified to enter wrecks independently, I clearly need more practice before I can do so competently.

Fortunately, I made up for this debacle by shining in the fish identification exercise. We ended the course with a fish survey, which basically involved marking every fish I saw on my last dive. As the dive site was populated with a somewhat ridiculous amount of fish, this basically meant I was scribbling nonstop on my slate for 45 minutes, marking down Blue Tang, Fairy Basslets, and Ugly Parrotfish (not a technical name, but an effective description nonetheless). I could very happily do this for a living - there has to be some oceanographic institute that pays people to kick around underwater counting fish. Between this and my bakery book, my future seems secure.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Flaming Shirts in Leon

Just some quick comments while reflecting that I never, under any circumstances, expected a comment from the automotive lending industry on my blog...

Central American festivals are a sight to behold. My visit to Leon happened to coincide with a festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary. The entire town basically stopped for the day, with everyone piling into Church in the morning and then into the town square in the afternoon. Local businesses handed out candy (including sugar-coated chicken, which just wasn't good), children ran around on sugar highs, the place was just generally in a state of pandemonium. As twilight fell the fireworks began.

Now, these were not your typical western fireworks. Instead, they were mainly fired from children prancing around with large wooden boxes on their heads, with small fireworks firing out the top and the sides. The ones from the tops went into high, arcing parabolas, giving the crowd plenty of time to scatter. The ones from the side went in a spiral into the crowd, but were moving slowly enough that people generally had time to avoid them. One particular firework spiraled in my general direction. I quickly ducked to the side as it went past my head and then felt a rather intense pain in my right arm. I looked down at my arm and saw that my shirt was glowing orange, as the firework had evidently impacted upon my bicep.

I quickly extinguished my shirt, but in the few seconds it took me to do so, a hole approximately an inch in diameter burned through my shirt and into my arm. My arm had a black patch of burnt skin right beneath the hole in the shirt and was throbbing rather painfully. Fortunately the wound was superficial and was easily patched up by a pair of Swedish doctors who I'd met a couple of days earlier. Two days later there appears to be no long term damage, although I now own only one holeless shirt. I suppose this is the price one pays when traveling for eight months.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Spearfishing with Rubber Bands

I've spent the past week learning Spanish at Laguna de Apoyo in Nicaragua. The laguna is a quiet little place about a half hour from Granada, just north of Lago Nicaragua. My days generally consisted of getting up with the sun, jogging around part of the lake, remembering why I hate romance languages for 5 hours (grammer), and then generally relaxing around the lake. Not a bad way to spend a few days.

The lake itself is fascinating. It was formed very recently (23000 years ago) and has only a few species of fish. The native fish have started to speciate and are thus unique to Apoyo. On top of that, there is some kind of parasite in the fish that causes them to slowly go blind. Lots of the fish have either very cloudy eyes or no eyes at all, as other fish often eat the diseased eyes.

On Friday I got a chance to go diving in the lake. The lake is on an active volcano, so the water is a comfortable 85 degrees, with vents where it reaches well over 100. The entire dive briefing was in Spanish and I still managed to understand it (almost makes the grammer worthwhile). The main purpose of the dives were to gather specimens for dissection and analysis by a visiting scientist from Cornell - they have good choice in visiting scientists here in Nicaragua. To catch the fish, the local scientist had a thin metal rod about a meter long. Attached to the end of the rod was a small elastic band. He would aim the rod at a fish, pull the elastic band back as far as he could, and release. The rod would then spring forward at a velocity sufficient to puncture the fish, and he would loop a string through the gills, out the mouth, and voila, the fish is captured. I got to try this myself a couple of times, but unfortunately my aim left something to be desired. However, with some practice, I feel I could return to the Thai Sea well equipped to wreck revenge on the Triggerfish population.

On an unrelated note, about two minutes after getting off the bus in Granada, I heard a loud commotion up the street and saw people stampeding towards me. Behind the crowd was a runaway bull charging, with a couple of cowboys chasing after him. I took advantage of a conviently located car and hid behind it as the bull ran past me and nearly gored a German couple. Exciting place, Granada.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Bakeries Across the World

Bakeries are perhaps the perfect travelers fast food joint. They open early, usually by 5 or 6 in the morning, allowing the traveler to get a quick breakfast before jumping on that early morning bus. They are delightfully cheap - even in an expensive town like San Jose, you can get enough food for to sate your hunger until dinner for less than two dollars. Most importantly, they are generally delicious.

On the bus out of Monteverde, I was having a fairly typical bakery breakfast. Loaf of french bread, a pineapple strudel, a small apple-cinnamon concoction, and a croissant (total price of 700 colones, with 480 colones to the dollar). I got to the croissant and realized that unlike most crossiants, this one was glazed, much like a donut. Properly pleased by this discovery, I next found a brownish interior substance. At first glance I thought this might be apple, but soon found it to be caramel. This glazed caramel croissant was quickly dubbed the "Orgasmitron" by a fellow traveler, and inspired a discussion of bakeries I've patronized over the past 7 months. Highlights included Kathmandu, Kunming, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Ko Tao, and, of course, Monteverde. It also gave me the following idea.

Every traveler dreams of writing a book when they get home. Its a ticket to continuing the traveler lifestyle of no responsibility and generally easy living. While I don't have the ubiquitous dread of the nine to five job that most backpackers do, I do enjoy writing and have the same kind of romantic notion that someday I may be inspired to produce something worth reading. Might a review of worldwide bakeries be such a subject? Granted, its a bit of a niche product, but then, there have to be enough people in the world like myself and my brother to justify such a book. I'd certainly shell out a few bucks to get a map to the best pastry in every conceivable destination, and I would personally love researching this particular project.

Anyway, this is now my dream. For those who might laugh, I recommend trying out the Cinnamon Swirl loaf from Great Harvest in Lexington Massachusetts. Imagine a guide to bread like this everywhere you go. I'm sure you'll agree that it would be worth the $4.95.