A Travellerspoint blog

My Casita by the Sea

Solitude and Peace (So where is that d*** epiphany?)

sunny 89 °F

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I didn't plan on living in such a small village, but when I envisioned living on Caye Caulker, I wondered if I could find a place with reasonable rates for long term rental at this time of year. I also thought about the touristy aspect...was that the kind of environment I wanted around me while I sort out my life and try to do some writing? I just wanted a 'normal' life, but with blue skies and natural light throughout the day. Near the sea preferred. Hey, why not here? So I decided to make inquiries here and found a place right away.

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I am fairly happy with my casita (little house) which is located on the edge of the village. In fact, it is on the last street--Tulip Street. The casita is technically attached to my landlords' house, but I have my own front door. It is just a decent-sized room with an attached bathroom, furnished with a large refrigerator, a double bed, a table, two plastic chairs, a 3-drawer nightstand and a small set of shelves which is now my 'kitchen'.

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So that I could cook for myself, I bought a two-burner table top stove and some basics: one pot, one pan, etc. A plastic dishpan allows me to wash my dishes (in the shower!). A dish towel and food supplies make it complete. Cooking takes some extra planning and care (I'm a bit nervous about using the tiny two-burner) and it can be a little awkward without counter space or a sink...but I'm hoping to produce healthier fare than I can get at any 'restaurant' in town.

My bathroom is basic. There is a toilet and a shower, but the minuscule sink produces only a trickle and is too small for washing more than hands. The toilet does not have a toilet seat (this is common in many countries), but luckily it is the right size for me and it is never cold to sit on the porcelain since the weather is warm and tropical. The shower has a shower curtain and doesn't get the rest of the bathroom wet-- a relief since shower curtains are not commonly used here. There is no hot water. Most locals don't have have water, it's usually just in places that tourists stay-- Americans are notorious for expecting hot water even in very hot climates. I shower once or twice a day and find that a cool shower means I stay as clean and can cool off, but don't waste as much water. The only time, I miss warm water is for shampooing, but luckily, my hair is still in my short African style. In the afternoon, I have sun-warmed water in the pipe which is just enough to do my hair before the cool water starts.

Washing dishes in the shower takes some patience and coordination. The faucet in the shower is about 20 inches off the floor. As I squat or lean over from the waist to do my washing in a plastic pan, I think of my sisters in Africa- most of whom would be envious just because I have running water in my house. Travel makes one thankful and appreciate what may seem to be small things, but that are really BIG.

I was thinking that a small village might help me with reflections; that it would be hard to find distractions. HA! Yet it is also true that everything, even the simple things (brushing my teeth, buying food, etc.) takes much more effort and time. In this sense, there are many distractions...just not the fun kind. Sometimes, it seems like an endless loop of doing laundry (by hand), washing dishes, cooking, scavenging for food, fighting the hordes of invasive ants and keeping on top of the dust (no paved roads and it's the dry season).

As I write this, the long white curtains are waving from the breeze entering through the two big windows. The cooling breeze also comes through my screen door to the table where I write. Light. Lovely natural light fills my room. On first reflection it's peaceful and quiet, but there is actually a lot of noise. The sounds you tune into when laying on the grass with your eyes closed on a lazy summer day...the rattle of my propped-open door when the sea breeze blows; a rooster crowing from down the road; the strange whoops and whistles of tropical birds; the rustling of the mango tree leaves; a dog barking far away. It's so quiet, if I listen hard, I can hear voices from several blocks away, singing from a church, someone's radio playing musica romantica and an occasional pickup driving down main street a long block away.

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Sometimes, my landlord walks by to feed Puma the dog or to get something from the storage shed. She's company if I want it, but I seldom do. I am content with the quiet and a occasional visits by small geckos which I welcome for their bug eating activities. Geckos make a cheery chuckling noise now and then, but they are actually quite shy. I have one little guy hanging out in the corner who is less than an inch long. I hope he is consuming ants.

This place can get buggy. I've not seen a single cockroach which is a surprise for a tropical setting, but I do get ant hordes in the strangest places. They are the smallest ants I have ever seen and seem to appear out of no where. One night I saw a spider on the floor. It looked huge and black, but on a closer look-- it was dead or almost dead. It was completely covered by hundreds of the teeny-tiny ants consuming it, ugh!

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The best time of day is in the late afternoon. Without fail, I walk or ride a bike to the sea. I walk the length of a long warped wooden dock and enter the water. It is my favorite activity. I have to walk a long distance in the water until it is finally up to my shoulders. By then, I am far away from everyone. I plunge in and start swimming. I make a game of swimming out to a different boat each day to see what their names are. Without my glasses, I have to get close. Puff (with a picture of a dragon), O La La, Tiempo de Isla (Island Time), Grasy's, El Dueno (the owner/boss), Regalito (Gift)... many are so faded I can barely read them.

I time my swim to avoid a large group of Canadian snowbirds that descend more like a flock of waddling penguins and stand in the water by the dock loudly talking about what seem to be their favorite topics-- drinking and how "things should be". After a few minutes in the water, they sit on the dock for more social chatter, make plans for evening cocktails, then leave. When I arrive, there are just a few locals (mostly kids) or if I am lucky, no one. I do a lot of thinking while I'm swimming. Usually, the only interruption is when the Thunderbolt ferry comes roaring up to the cement public pier nearby. I watch the brief flurry as a handful of people get off, get on, receive or handover something for delivery. For some strange reason this always makes me smile and gives me a sense of well-being. Sometimes, I arrive too late to see it arrive, but then I content myself with watching yet another gorgeous sunset over the water. From bright sun to burnishing gold and then a glowing red ball of fire, it slips below the water's surface.

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Posted by jaytravels 10:11 Archived in Belize Tagged belize rtw Comments (0)

S L O W Life in the Village

Just writing this has me yawning and longing for a nap!

sunny 89 °F

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Main Street- Where all the action is!

Belize is known for its quirky personality as much as for its diverse environments including the Mayan jungles and its Caribbean slow life on the cayes (islands). I'm in yet a different setting. I am living in a small fishing village. In addition to fishing, boat building is the major industry. Tourism is also starting to contribute to the local economy, but it is growing slowly. More commonly, snowbirds from Canada are buying up land for vacation homes. They usually expand the village population between January and Easter.

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This boat is being built just one block from where I live so I get to see the process which is...s l o w.

Sandwiched between jungle and the sea, there are a series of natural water wells that have always made the area attractive for settlements, but the original Mayan pyramids are long gone.This current community consists of Mestizos of Yucateca Mayan ancestry that relocated here during the Caste wars though later, quite a few families also came from Honduras and El Salvador during the conflicts there. Therefore, Spanish is the primary language, but most locals know some English corresponding with their level of education (school classes are taught in English). However, the Spanish here has its own unique flavor; some locals do not have complete command of either Spanish or English. Only a few of the elderly still speak Mayan.

While somewhat isolated, the village can be reached by small private plane, bus or boat. The road is rough and washes out in the rainy season and a 4-wheel drive is recommended for intrepid travelers. The bus is a challenge, both for the bad road, the bad buses and a schedule that is geared to the local fishermen needing to commute to Belize City. The four daily buses leave each morning at 3:00 am, 4:00 am, 5:00 am, and 6:00 am. Yep, you'd better get up early like the locals! The forty mile distance to the first real town can take up to two hours.

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This is actually the bus station, but no one goes there. The bus makes a loop around town before it hits the road so you can get picked up most anywhere in town and you pay on board. These are old Bluebird school buses that were bought used. Air-conditioning? If you can pry open the window!

For a little more money, the easiest and most pleasant way to get here is by boat. There is a ferry service that passes by when it goes from a mainland town to one of the cayes (islands) popular with tourists. When I was here last, a stop at the village was by special request, but there is enough business to make it a regular stop now. And it's not just people who board and disembark, mail and other deliveries are part of the service. My last trip,we were accompanied by a full-sized refrigerator and a large wooden wardrobe.

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The Thunderbolt ferry- it makes two daily stops- one going east in the morning and one going west in the afternoon. One day it didn't arrive...OMG. The police found a package of marijuana among the cargo. When none of the passengers admitted to being the owner (duh!), they arrested the captain. The Thunderbolt was impounded. Big drama, but the Thunderbolt was back on track with the usual captain the next day.

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The population is somewhere between 2-3000, but it sometimes feels even smaller as the men and older boys are gone for long periods of time according to the fishing season. Many families also temporarily relocate to the cities (Belmopan or Belize City) when their children want to study beyond high school or to get vocational training; they usually can't afford to sustain two households.

There are currently only two guesthouses with no more than 2-5 rooms each, but there is a new home stay program and a backpacker place with camping and cabins has opened up just outside of town . When I was here about a half-dozen years ago, I didn't see another tourist and the only foreigner I observed was a fundamentalist missionary who approached me right after I had arrived. This time there are quite a few tourists and tons of seasonal expats. Tourists don't stay long as there isn't much to do. The younger ones are eager to move on to a place with a real beach, but stay long enough to visit a nearby nature reserve. The older ones are generally expats who own or rent temporary housing and stay for a few months each year to escape cold weather in the US and Canada. Their main contribution to the local economy seems to be buying alcohol in large quantities (but that's just my biased view).

Lots of restaurants have come and gone over the years, but there are never more than a few at a time-- they just don't get enough business. Pablito's and Ritchi's cater to the drinking ex-pat types who want (and can afford) booze and a meal with fish or meat with beans and rice or french fries. The primary place is Liz Fast Food which sells the local snacks of tacos, tostadas, garnachos, salbutes and the occasional burger which at $3.50BZ (or $1.75US) is one of the more expensive items (it's the only item with beef). Best of all, they are open from 6:30 am to 2 pm and then 6 pm to 10 pm everyday. It's a good place to hangout to watch Mexican telenovelas (soap operas) and gossip with the 'girls'. This is where locals come.

After a few days, I'm able to work out a schedule and figure out how to take advantage of the limited local resources. On Wednesdays, a Mennonite from a (relatively) nearby community comes with a pickup load of produce and eggs. On Sundays, there's a plastic salesman (buckets, pans, containers). On Saturdays and occasional Thursdays, a senora sells homemade chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves, but you'd better get there early. A local guy drives around in his pickup a few times a week to sell fruit and miscellaneous produce. Yesterday, he had grapes from Chile, two papayas, cheap local oranges, plantains, chayote (a type of watery squash), some sad shriveled carrots and a few pricey limes (the lime crops in Mexico and Central America are currently infected-- reducing availability and raising costs).

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The Mennonite's usual transport is a horse and cart, but he hires a local to drive him to the village.

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Delivery trucks parked in front of the 'super' market.

There's a bakery that's just a year old; it sells basic white bread and Mexican style sweetbreads. A tortilla factory sells tortillas and tostadas; I've seen another tortilla place with a sign, but I haven't found it open yet. One of the tiny stores that has been around for awhile has grown into a "super" market by local standards. But pickings are still slim and geared toward basics. This is basically a poor (and isolated) community and those that can afford specialty items tend to make occasional shopping trips to Corozal or Orange walk though I didn't see much in the stores there either.

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Locals know where to go, so many businesses don't bother with a sign. Everyone knows G.B. opens her window in her home in the evenings and sells oil, rice and other basics as well as a few homemade baked goods. I saw a lemon meringue pie on the counter of one little store and some small Valentine cakes at another; local ladies trying to make a little extra money. On Friday evenings, members of a church set up a small table and sell baked goods and garnachos (essentially tostadas topped with re-fried beans and a bit of cabbage and tomato). Some places only open for a few hours in the evening. Others stay open all the time since it is essentially part of their house and there is always at least one family member to make the sale. Tucked away in dark hallways, I have caught glimpses of what might be toy/party store and a 'gift' shop.

I stumbled across another large grocery store at the opposite end of the village from where I'm staying. It was almost as large as the super store, but had even less variety. There was no sign and they keep the lights inside turned off-- not sure if it is to keep it cool or for thrift. As I said, no sign, but everyone calls it Chino's. This guy also runs a takeout business from the back of his store (again nothing to indicate the service). He sells fried chicken, Chow Mein and Chop Suey. None of these dishes bears resemblance to actual Chinese food, but no one here would know that and he seems to do a pretty brisk business with the chicken in the evening. In this case, the owner really is Chinese (and doesn't speak English or Spanish), but even if he was Korean, Japanese or any other Asian ethnicity, they would still call him El Chino. There seems to be at least one "Chino" store in every community however small. Where other stores close for lunch and holidays-- El Chino is always open all day and never closes on any day.

And sometimes, the business comes to your house. No Fuller Brush or Amway type sales here. Just a low quiet call of 'tarde', the local shorthand for buenas tardes. If you come to the door, you will find them standing a polite distance away with their product held out for you to see. I have been offered homemade coconut candy, used clothing, hammocks, watermelon, oranges, and packets of spice. There's also a casual exchange of free offerings if you are in the right place at the right time. This usually involves fruit from the trees in a yard. I have been the recipient of limes, green mangos, plums and a fruit that resembles a mamay (but lacks the divine flavor and texture).

There are a few tiny nods to tourism. Chuy's Souvenir and Art Center (the son of a fisherman I met a few years back added a room on to his father's house to sell his paintings); a cyber-net cafe sign claims internet and copy machine services (I went to check it out, but found it closed); and Brisa's Bike Rentals has a few battered offerings if someone else doesn't get there first. A few other signs hang by the one for bike rentals-- remnants of previously attempted and failed businesses-- one for a restaurant and another for a barbershop. That last one must have inspired the neighbor as I see him occasionally cutting someone's hair on his porch. Hmmm... I may have to pay him a visit.

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For the locals there is a center that has limited health services for people and organizes the occasional "It's Hip to Snip" clinics for pets . There's a police department near the public dock that doesn't see much business. Eight churches- all equally tiny in size and only one is Catholic- are scattered mostly along the main road. A library is being constructed slowly over time and there's a sign requesting volunteer labor. A bike ride to the far side of town uncovered a Nazerine elementary school and two high schools, one Baptist and one Catholic. A rough sports field was nearby. A quiet woman and her little boy make rounds on a horse-drawn cart; she's the garbage collector.

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The Police Department is by the main pier with a great view of the water.

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Yep, it's the slow life here. The only excitement I anticipate is eventually seeing the toucans that eat Mabi's blackberries. My primary entertainments are reading library e-books on my android, sitting by the sea watching the sunset, borrowing Mabi's bike for a spin around town and occasionally dropping in at Liz's. Sometime between 3-5 in the afternoon, I walk to the dock to take my daily swim.

Yep, it's the slow life. Very slooooooowwwwwww. Yet my writing is not forthcoming because my mind has become slooooowwww too! And because it's the slow life, I am doing my own laundry by hand, doing my own cooking from scratch on a two-burner stove-top and walking wherever my errands take me. Strangely, I never seem to have much free time...

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Posted by jaytravels 11:34 Archived in Belize Tagged belize rtw Comments (0)

Plan B in Belize

A Bit of Babble About Belize

sunny 87 °F

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Sun and Shade- its a good name for a Belizean boat.

Belize has always been a bit of a fascination for me. It is so unique for a Central American country. It's the the smallest country- similar in size to Israel or the state of Massachusetts in the U.S- and has the lowest population density. Last recorded to be 340,800 in population, it now has the most rapidly increasing population rate in Central America. Tucked between Mexico (northern land and water borders), Guatemala (west and south borders) and the Caribbean Sea (east) where there are many cayes (islands), it is the only Central American country without a Pacific coastline. The reef that follows its eastern coastline is the second largest coral reef after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Yep, Belize is a bit of an odd duck all around due in no small part to a prolonged colonization by the British who called it British Honduras- not to be confused with the nearby country Honduras. So, it is no surprise that it is the only country in Central America that does not have Spanish as its official language. The official language remains English though Spanish is more common in many areas.

Another major language is Kriol (or Creole) which you'll find spoken throughout the country, but especially along the coast and on the cayes (pronounced 'keys"). An estimated 75% of the population speak Kriol though only 21% of the population is identified as Kriol. Kriols are descendants of the Baymen slave owners (former pirates) and slaves, but it is now more a cultural designation than racial. Kriols in Belize City tell me that the Belizean Kriol is very similar to the one spoken in Jamaica. One theory is that it might have originated there and come to Belize via slaves that stayed briefly in Jamaica. There are many other ethnic groups and all have their own first languages such as Kek'ch, Yucatec and Mopan Mayan languages, Garifuna, Plautdietsch and Hindi.

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This advertisement painted on a wall uses three languages to get the point across.

The Mayans tend to be clustered along the borders of Guatemala and in the northern regions near Mexico. Many of them came to Belize in the 1840's as a result of the Caste Wars in the Yucatan; others came from Guatemala-- as well as Honduras and El Salvador-- in the 80's due to continuing conflicts there. The Garinagu (speakers of Garifuna) are descendants of Arawak Indians and African slaves who were exiled from Roatan Island in Honduras and settled along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Plautdietsch is spoken by the Mennonites (though more recent immigrants hail from Russia and speak a more traditional German) who were welcomed by the Belizean government when they left Canada and the US to avoid religious conflicts. Mennonites live primarily in closed farming communities and similar to the more well-known Amish, generally don't use modern conveniences.

Those that speak Hindi are often descendants of Indians that were brought here as indentured servants. Some were taken from prisons or abducted while others were tricked into thinking they paying for passage to another country where they could start a new and better life-- unfortunately, most were treated no better than slaves. In more recent times, Chinese and Korean merchants have shown up in even in the most isolated areas to open stores. Currently, the largest growing population is probably the American and Canadian ex-pats attracted to lower prices and warm, sunny weather.

Another unique character of Belize is that it is the only country to be a full member of the Caribbean Community, Community of Latin America and Caribbean States and the Central American Integration System.

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The Swing Bridge- Locals in Belize City pitch in to crank the only functioning, manually-operated swing bridge in the world. You used to be able to tell the time by the 'swings' which were done each morning and evening like clockwork to let the fishing and sail boats go through.When the swinging was in progress, time and people stood still until they could cross again. Now, it opens by request only, so one needs to hurry "befo de bridge ketch me".

Belize has many quirky characters and characteristics. Coming up soon is Baron Bliss Day usually celebrated on March 9th. Baron Bliss was a wealthy British man with a Portuguese title who willed the country almost two million dollars when he died. The last months of his life were spent on his luxury fishing yacht anchored in Belize City's bay though he never actually set foot on land. It's a national public holiday and celebrated with regattas up and down the coast.

The country's motto is "You'd Better Belize It". In the south, you can take the Hokey-Pokey ferry or in the north, the Thunderbolt ferry. I once ate a place called Rasta Pasta (with the best fresh ginger ale ever!). Caye Caulker is known for it's "Go Slow" signs-- funnier if you know there are no cars on the island and the three 'streets' are of sand so you don't even need shoes. Placencia is on record for having the most narrow main street in the world-- no vehicles on that street either; not even bicycles are allowed on this street which is actually a long, skinny boardwalk over the sand.

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The view when you get off the ferry in Caye Caulker has changed, but the streets remain the same- sandy and clear of vehicles.

One of the reasons I have come to Belize so often, is that it is such a convenient location for adventure. You can land in Belize City and after about a two-hour bus ride be in Guatemala or Mexico. Two very close and interesting sites in Guatemala are the Mayan ruins of Tikal surrounded by jungle and Livingstone, a town with a large Garinagu population which can be reached only by water (sea or river). From Livingston in the Bay of Honduras, you can take a boat on the Rio Dulce to Lago Izabal (River Dulce to Izabal Lake). Or back in Dangriga, Belize-- catch a boat and be in Honduras two hours later.

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This tiny boat gets loaded with people and cargo wanting to go from Punta Gorda, Belize to Livingston, Guatemala.

If you stay in Belize, you can snorkel among sharks and manta rays, go caving (including the famous ATM living museum), inner tube through underground rivers, do a home-stay with a Mennonite family, hike the jungle trails or visit one of the most unusual zoos I have ever seen (it has its own unique story).

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The big dark nurse sharks look scary when there are a few dozen swimming in figure-8's around you, but they are vegetarians. Similarly, the big manta rays are so used to snorkelers, they will actually softly brush against you as they swim past. An amazing experience!

Belize also has as a colorful history full of pirates and buccaneers (AKA Baymen). Glover's Atoll (or reef) is named after John Glover a pirate. My father's name is John Glover and it gave him quite a laugh when I told him of our possible notorious ancestor. Another unusual coincidence is that the area where I am staying was completely destroyed by Hurricane Janet (my given name is Janet) in 1955 (my year of birth). Hmmmm...Is Belize my destiny?

Probably not, but it is my back up plan for now.

Posted by jaytravels 13:14 Archived in Belize Tagged belize rtw Comments (0)

Always Have a Plan B!

In Limbo at the End of an RTW

sunny 83 °F
View Start on jaytravels's travel map.

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I become aware of someone singing in a low melodious voice. It must be Ismael. It is still dark, but as with most fishermen in the village, he is getting an early start. He is a regular reader of the Bible so I vaguely wonder if he is singing a hymn to complete the ritual of Bible reading and prayer before he faces the open sea . It's a nice way to wake up, but I am not ready to surrender my sleep.

The next time I wake, it is to a cacophony of song birds. Who knew there were so many here! There are short chirps, staccato squeaks, warbling whistles, shrill squawks and and short bursts of sweet song here and there. I don't know how long it continues because I slip off to sleep again. The next time I wake, I let myself wallow in guilt a few minutes. This is my first morning in my new home. Because I have slept in, I will just have yogurt for breakfast. Besides, I haven't washed last night's dishes yet. But I don't want to get caught up in housecleaning and distractions-- I need to start my projects. That's why I am here.

I have just finished almost two years of travelling...or am I finished? Since I gave up my apartment, sold my car and scattered my things among friends and strangers before my round the world (RTW) trip began, I don't have a home anymore. So when does the traveling actually end? I returned to the United States in time to celebrate my mother's 93rd birthday (Happy Birthday, Mom!), but I was not prepared for a return. I stayed with her for ten days which included Christmas and a visit with various relatives including a new six-month old grandniece and a grandnephew I had last seen when he was of a similar age and not the walking-talking version he is now.

After a challenging visit with my mother in a small Oregon town, I stayed with my brother in Portland, Oregon at the same address that is on my unused driver's license and any stray mail that still gets delivered for me. I had lived in Seattle, Washington for over 20 years, but when I quit my job and started my RTW, I was once again an Oregon resident and registered voter according to all records. My Portland stay was also a challenge. It was record breaking cold and as is typical of the Pacific Northwest-- gray. Dark gray. The primary reason I didn't plan to return to live in the Pacific Northwest. It was a cruel setting after almost a year straight of warm places with bright sun. I could not sleep and yet I had difficulty getting out of bed. I had a lot of business to take care of after 21 months on the road; unfortunately, all of them were things I hated to do and had always dragged my feet on. The most critical was to get some health insurance. I struggled to get things done; everyday was gray...

I had planned to visit my friends in Seattle, but somehow my heart was not in it (Sorry everyone...believe me, I would have been bad company...how about in April?). I was not ready. I had a conflicted heart, a bit of re-entry shock and most of all--no plan. I wasn't ready for a flurry of lunches and visits accompanied by questions; I still had too many questions of my own. Finally in desperation, I implemented Plan B, the only plan I had been able to come up with. I'd be digging into the money that had been set aside for my relocation and living expenses while I job searched. But without any idea of where to relocate or what kind of job to seek, I needed something immediate that might prompt formation of a Plan A. So I booked a one-way flight to the sun and warmth I was craving.

Fast forward about a week...I am temporarily living in Belize. I have visited Belize several times and know most of the country and those sharing its borders (Guatemala, Mexico) as well as those nearby (just two hours by boat to Honduras). So I knew that if I didn't find what I wanted here, I had other choices within an easy distance. But foremost in my mind, I thought Caye Caulker (an island near Belize City) would be a good choice and had assumed I would end up there. Yet I am not in the fun, quirky location I had originally envisioned after all.

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I never made it to Caye Caulker. Somehow, I am living in a small isolated fishing village. I paid a month's rent (a whopping $125US) and then headed to the nearest town with services to buy a 'kitchen'. I spent almost as much as my rent on a two-burner stove-top, a pot, a pan and basic kitchen supplies as well as some food items that will not be available in my village. So now, I have a one room home with an attached bathroom (toilet, shower and miniature sink), a large refrigerator, a bed, a table, two chairs, a 3-drawer night stand and some shelves that have become my makeshift kitchen. There's a ceiling fan, but with two generous windows and a screened door to let in the light and the sea breeze, I suspect it won't be needed very often.

I'm just two blocks from the sea; it changes color throughout the day, but is mostly a brilliant turquoise. My casita (little house) is on the edge of the village, so except for the random rooster crowing and village dogs barking (which can sometimes go on a while), it's pretty quiet. My place is attached to the house of the family I am renting from which gives me security and instant company if I want it. Thus my wakening to Ismael's singing. His wife is a sweetheart who has gone out of her way to make my stay comfortable.

I am here to write on three projects: fill in the gaps of my RTW blog; write a resume; and perhaps finish the book I started years ago about my travels in Mexico before I resided there. I am hoping my three projects will help me process my RTW and open up some plans for what to do next (that dang epiphany never did occur). My birthday is coming up in a few weeks (my third one on the road) and it's a BIG one, so I am giving myself a month or two to indulge in writing, enjoy the warm, bright days and live the slow life. After that...well, Plan A is still in the works. Until then, it's still Plan B.

In addition to my three projects, I hope to share some village life with you, too. In fact, I'm eager to tell you about Belize, my village, my casita and the slooowww life. Coming soon!...An introduction to Belize.

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Posted by jaytravels 08:52 Archived in Belize Tagged belize rtw Comments (1)

Changing Africa- One Village at a Time

Make Sure That What You Do Contributes to REAL Change

semi-overcast 83 °F

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I had hoped to do a series of articles focusing on the need for development and assistance in Africa. But I have discovered that the topic is immense, deep and complex. I still don't know enough to help me choose my path, but when my arm was broken, I experienced first-hand (or first-arm, ha ha!) that the medical services are seriously limited and I saw over and over the curtain of privilege that shields tourists from the realities of sanitation and water.

In Tanzania, the intelligent locals I met lamented the poor school system and yearned for better education opportunities. The educational programs are not free and the majority of Tanzanians are lucky to finish basic studies. High school is usually out of reach due to costs and entrance requirements. The quality of education in the schools whether in a village or in a city is generally very poor. Teachers who teach in English often do not have command of the language. Children usually start school without a command of Swahili as tribal affiliations and languages are still strong. In the end, many finish school being trilingual in English, Swahili and their tribal language, but unfortunately, their education has often suffered as a result. And perhaps more unfortunately, even those who succeed in obtaining a high school diploma or university degree will not find jobs that use their education...if they even get any job at all. Unemployment in all of Africa is zooming. Each country is unique in its circumstances, but Tanzania-- a safe, stable country in East Africa-- has been severely impacted by the terrorism in nearby Kenya and the Ebola in West Africa. Most people have so little knowledge of Africa, they do not realize that it is not a country-- it is a large continent with many countries and the differences and distances are great.

There are many groups and organizations trying to help break the cycle of poverty in Africa. Of the twenty poorest countries in the world, only two (Afghanistan and Haiti) are not in Africa. Most organizations have put a lot of thought into what they should focus on to address poverty in a way that would be most productive. Many NGO's concentrate on bringing in volunteers, but this system often does more harm as eager volunteers may be taking jobs away from locals and they may be straining local resources (food, water, etc.). A volunteer English teacher that will work for free (or more likely pay for the privilege of being a volunteer) may displace a local teacher. As one NGO that builds schools says on their website-- there are plenty of unskilled workers here to do this job; we need money not labor.

Clean water and sanitation is a big focus, as is education. But sometimes, there are more specific needs in an area...perhaps energy for production (solar panels are increasingly popular) or improved farming and agricultural methods, Other groups focus on the poorest (women with children) and provide micro-loans to develop cottage industries or other ways to assist in creating ways to earn an income. Some organizations already have a focus like WaterAid (water and sanitation) and just concentrate on that. Others try to focus on two to four of what they see as the most critical issues or evaluate individual locations for what they need most (or better yet, ask the locals to help identify what they see as their most critical areas of need). Other groups may be well-meaning, but due to lack of experience and expertise and an excess of desire to help or do something, they flounder around trying to do everything and accomplishing very little.

Many NGO's are created by individuals who came as tourists and were deeply affected by what they had seen. Some NGO's are created by locals in partnership with a foreigner that originally came as a tourist/traveler/employee to the country, but stayed due to a developing relationship often ending in marriage. These are usually money-making programs that support the couple and their family, but most have some component that promotes cross-cultural education and gives back to the community in someway by providing volunteers in schools/orphanages, building schools, digging wells, home-stay income for locals, etc. The best example of an NGO that I saw in Arusha was KATZ (www.katzvolunteeradventure.com). This is a partnership between a Tanzanian and an Australian who live in Arusha. The organization does not charge inflated prices for volunteer placement and is very transparent on their website as to where the money goes. They were located near my first garden apartment and had a steady stream of happy volunteers who also had access to the safari component of the partnership. Another type of NGO is developed by those who have left their country, but still have family and/or community there that they want to help.

I'll be leaving Africa soon and I have been pulled into many discussions about developing an NGO. It is an idea that is still floating around. I had an epiphany when I was in Nairobi being treated for my broken arm that perhaps my fate was to return to Arusha and develop heath services or a network that would share costly medical equipment. But my broken arm is almost healed, my Tanzanian visa is about to run out and I have an RTW that I would like to finish if possible before I take on a project.

But let me just encourage those that want to help to think very carefully in choosing a program. NGO's abound. Sometimes the NGO component is attached to a money making project that is the primary purpose. No problem with this as long as the money for the NGO is kept separate and used appropriately and efficiently for that purpose. In Arusha, many companies combine a money-making safari program with a non-profit volunteer program that supports education or health projects. But other volunteer and cultural experience programs are thinly veiled money-makers for the creators some of which don't even live in the country (so the money follows them rather than staying in Africa). Make sure the money and efforts are going where they are supposed to go. A good company is transparent and shows their annual budgets and where the money goes. Do your research before committing your money or your time. Try to choose a local run program that provides jobs to locals so all the money stays in the country.

One program I have been following is Mission Africa [full disclosure, I am friends with the Executive Director and founder]. Mission Africa is primarily focused on Nigeria, but more recently has partnered with other NGO's in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Gambia. I personally don't usually support non-profits that involve religion, but after living in Tanzania for almost six months-- I have a different view when it comes to the work in Africa. Christianity is an integral part of people's lives in Tanzania in a way that is seldom seen in the United States. For more about this organization, you can view the website at www.missionafrica.us. The Executive Director, Ndudi Chuku recently did a TV interview with Rainmakers; watching it will give you more insight than reading something written by me. There's a link on the website's homepage for this YouTube clip titled "Nigerian Woman Helps Her Country".

Africa is poor in a way that most readers cannot imagine. Please read my blog "I Move to a New Garden Apartment" for a small glimpse and watch the interview with Ndudi-- maybe you will be motivated to help make a change too. In the meantime, I hope to figure out a way to help that is right for me.

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Side Note/Update: Recently, while volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand, I took a tour of a nearby school. It was primarily a boarding school for children in distant mountain villages, but most of the children of the local mahouts (elephant attendants) who are Burmese attend there, too. It was such a contrast to the last school I had seen which was in Tanzania. This school was full of color from the floor (with shining clean green tiles) to the walls (covered with artwork and pictures) to the ceilings (electric lights and mobiles). There were covered walkways and a nice large patio/play area. In addition to the standard curriculum and English, all students were taught a job skill. Vocational choices included simple tourist related industries like piloting a boat, making drinks and cookies, making beaded jewelry, learning traditional dance and music, and massage. On visiting day at each 'business', guests could buy refreshments at the coffee shop, get a massage, buy a bracelet, etc. This money contributed to scholarships and resources for the school. The stark difference of this school with so many resources for poor children from the mountain villages caused me to suddenly burst into tears. My friend Valerie was shocked and tried to calm and comfort me. The students nearby became concerned...but I couldn't stop. It was just such a cruel contrast. Even as I write this weeks later, the tears in my eyes return.

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Posted by jaytravels 00:48 Archived in Tanzania Tagged tanzania arusha Comments (0)

BED BUGS! Coming soon to a hotel near you!

Warning: Reading this may cause extreme itchiness.

semi-overcast 84 °F

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I was so excited to be in Kathmandu! I had dreamed for a long time about coming to Nepal. Just the name Kathmandu sounded so exotic and brought up visions of adventure. So why after just ten hours was I wishing I'd never come?

Good night, sleep tight.
Don't let the bed bugs bite!

-- Nursery Rhyme

Bed bugs? What the *#^%! are bed bugs? If you don't know, count yourself as lucky. I thought they were just a mythical creation in a nursery rhyme, but they are real. Bed bugs were very common (for example, in military barracks during World War II), but were essentially eradicated from the U.S. and the developed world by the 1950's. Now these human parasites are making a comeback with a vengeance. Why? Because world travelers let them hitch rides and unfortunately, they (bed bugs not world travelers) have a constitution that makes a cockroach look like a wimp (though cockroaches are one of their predators).

I didn't even know these critters existed until about six years ago. I was in Belize City staying at a hotel I had used several times over the years. In fact, I had just stayed there just the week before in the very same room. I had laid on the bed after my shower and accidentally fallen asleep. When I woke up, it was dark. I turned on the lights to prepare for bed and got a glimpse of some movement. Euuwww! What was that? I flipped off the lights and then on again...the same creepy, stealthy moves. There seemed to be tiny bugs in the pillow.

It was about 2 am, so what should I do? I knew there would only be a security guard downstairs. I tossed the pillow onto the floor, wrapped myself in a sarong and slept on top of the sheet with no cover (it was hot, so none was necessary). I turned on the light once or twice more and didn't see any more bugs so I figured I was okay. I was leaving in the morning anyway to catch a plane home. I'd just let the owner know when I left in the morning.

When I took a shower the next morning, I discovered some bumps on my neck. A check in the mirror confirmed they were bites. Dang... mosquitoes or those mystery bugs? By the end of my shower, I had discovered more bites on my upper arms and around my ankles. They seemed to be multiplying! By the time I was checking out, I was using all my will power not to scratch. I was in misery.

The hotel owner admitted they had had a problem with bed bugs recently, but she had the place professionally treated and sprayed at great cost. The exterminator had even sprayed the bushes around the entrance. She apologized and said she'd make it up to me the next time I stayed there. When my airport transport arrived, I was in even more misery. By the time, I was at the airport, my arms were covered with large, red welts where I'd been bitten. Someone next to me in the waiting room asked if those were from the South American super-mosquito she'd heard were becoming a problem (kind of like the killer bees). Oh my god! I didn't realize how many big welts had popped out on my arms! My whole arm was covered with them.

Once on the plane, I was grateful for the cool air so that I could cover up with a long sleeved sweater. I was sure everyone was looking askance at me with so many huge welts on my arms and neck. And I kept discovering new bites... Good god! Was I carrying these bugs on me? I imagined them crawling all over me. Ugh, ugh, ugh!

When I changed planes in Houston, I couldn't refasten my sandals. My ankles and feet were horribly swollen. But not from sitting on the plane. My feet were covered with angry red bites and huge blood blisters. Walking was painful as the straps on my sports sandals rubbed on the bloody bumps. To hide the hideous sight and hopefully get some relief I put on socks and shoes. Walking was a little less painful, but things were getting worse.

Getting on my connecting plane, I was relieved when they turned out the cabin lights to let us sleep. There was no way I could sleep, but I didn't want the people around me to see my transformation-- especially if I might end up passing these bugs to them! My right ear was hot. I reached up to feel it and found it was swollen and sticking straight out from my head like Dumbo the Elephant's! There was a row of bites along the rim. More bites had popped out on my neck. Thankfully, none were on my face. With the exception of my head, the bites were essentially the areas not covered by my sarong: ankles, feet, hands, arms, shoulders and neck.

It was the longest flight in the world. I had covered up almost everything, but I was sure my "Dumbo" ear was going to attract unwanted attention. Thank heavens again for the dark of the night. I went straight to my reserved shuttle and made a plan as we headed into the city. I wouldn't even go into my apartment. When I got there, I would throw my bag into my car's truck and head straight for the emergency room. I'd never been to an emergency room before, but considering the size and quantity of the welts, the bloody blisters on my feet, my Dumbo ear and my absolute inflamed, itchy condition-- it seemed the only thing to do.

At the emergency room, it was a long wait, but when I stripped down to be wrapped in warm blankets and pumped full of antihistamine-- I finally felt some relief and hope. They did not diagnose me as having bed bug bites-- to do that they had to actually see one. Strangely, there was not a single bug on me, so why was I still getting bites? This is what I found out...

Bed bugs have a special "beak" that lets them inject their victims with their saliva which contains an anticoagulant and anesthesia-- that's why I never felt being bitten. Then they feed on you for 5-10 minutes. Some people never have any problem with the bites...they just experience an annoyance of a few small red marks like a mosquito might leave behind. Apparently, I was having an allergic reaction to the bed bug's anesthesia-- possibly due to the large numbers of bites I had experienced. Sometimes the bites don't become visible until hours later which is why I seemed to be getting new bites, but was actually just having a delayed response to the bites from the night before.

I was released from the emergency room after 13 hours of treatment. The itching was gone and I almost forgot about the bites (except the ones that had become blood blisters on my feet) since they were covered by my clothes. It was winter, so I wore pants and a turtleneck to work. A few days later, I decided I should have taken some photos. Most bites had pretty much disappeared, but my feet still looked ugly. Here are two views of my (still swollen) foot and ankle:

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Notice how the bites tend to be in a row. Bed bugs treat you like a buffet line, taking a bite, then going down the line for another and then another. One tell-tale sign that the bites are from a bed bug and not bites of a mosquito or spider is the line up of several bites usually in groups of three. I've heard it referred to as "Breakfast-Lunch-and Dinner". I won't go into a lot more detail. You can get a good overview by looking up "bed bug" in Wikipedia. But let me just say, they can go without food for 100-300 days, get water from the air and can tolerate extreme temperatures (hot and cold)-- all that combined with their resistance to pesticides makes it incredibly hard to get rid of them.

I was psychologically traumatized after The Attack of the Belizean Bed Bugs. A few years later, I sat in my car in horror as I listened to an NPR Radio story on bed bugs in New York (Warning! That nice couch on the sidewalk may be there for a reason! Leave it there!). I was so itchy and crawly and plain freaked out that I forgot about getting groceries and went straight home. I became an bed bug expert by reading everything I could find-- especially on how to avoid them.

So how did I forget the basic rules about how to avoid bed bugs when travelling and get into this predicament? Well, after six years of vacations-- and more recently a solid 18 months of travel-- that were bug-free, I just forgot to remain vigilant. Like eating street food-- no need to be obsessive, just take some practical precautions. Here are some to consider; you can find others with a web search.
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FIVE BASIC RULES FOR AVOIDING BED BUGS:
1. Upon arrival to your room, stash your bag in the bathroom while you check the bed for infestation: pull out the sheets and check around the mattress seams and headboard. You are looking for small blood stains (from squished bugs or bleeding bites) or small black dots (if it's bed bug poop a rub with a wet finger tip will cause it to smear and turn red). The largest bug will be the size of a watermelon seed (most of the ones I have seen are much smaller), but the babies are minuscule and translucent unless they have fed recently. Look at some pictures on line so that you know what they look like in the different stages.
2. Continue your search around the room (within a 15 foot range of the bed) especially soft chairs, couches, wooden wardrobes...even tucked under peeling paint. If you see white powder, the hotel may already be using an insecticide due to an existing or recent problem.
3. Keep your bag off the bed and floor during your stay. Use the luggage rack, a table or if necessary a desk or dresser top.
4. Consider wrapping your bag in plastic (bed bugs also hide on airplanes, trains, taxis, etc.). Even a plastic garbage bag might help.
5. Ask for a different room (several floors away) or go to a different hotel if you see warning signs! If you are sure there are bed bugs, please inform the manager. There is no need to be rude or accusatory...be discrete and just politely inform them of what you have found so that they can address the issue. Bed bugs can arrive unnoticed at any hotel from a cheap dive to a five-star. Bed bugs have nothing to do with a room being dirty or -- alternately-- an attractive designer room doesn't offer protection from them.

In my case, my hotel in Kathmandu was a popular, well-rated accommodation in the budget range. It was 1 am when I discovered the problem, but I didn't hesitate. I immediately went to the desk clerk, explained the problem and asked him to give me a new room. He didn't show any surprise and gave no resistance. I was moved to a new room immediately. I made an inspection and then I used my silk sleep sack and wore a Moroccan caftan that covered me from head to toe. It took awhile to get to sleep due to itching and psychological trauma, but it was a bug-free night.

The next day at breakfast, as I silently made note of where I was itching and then felt for the confirming welts to evaluate whether I needed to use my emergency epi-pen to avoid another bad allergic reaction, I was also debating on whether I should stay or find a new hotel. A new hotel would require some assistance since I could not carry my own bag (a broken arm if you are new to my blog). The hotel manager/owner stopped by my table to inquire about me and I honestly explained what I was considering. In the end, I accepted an upgrade to a room on the top floor. If it hadn't been an upgrade, I would have changed hotels. I needed comforting and the new room was much more visually appealing and had a nicer bathroom.

That night, at 11pm, I discovered a bed bug on the pillow. I immediately went to the desk clerk and asked if the owner/manager was still there. He was. We had a frank discussion of the situation and I was escorted to another hotel nearby. I let him know that I was also concerned that I might now be carrying bed bugs with me via my luggage. However, the new hotel was one that he also owned in partnership. It was not one I would normally have chosen (large, sterile and modern) and while still within my established budget and a reasonable price- it was at the high end for Kathmandu. But at this point, I deserved to be pampered (and I was given a large discount off the online price). I was given the last room available which was a double, so the next day I had to move again, but it was to yet another upgrade and I really liked the new room a lot! So five rooms in three nights...but like Goldilocks, the last one was just right! I could finally relax and enjoy my stay in Kathmandu.

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Footnote: A few days later, I saw the manager/owner of the first hotel and he told me that another guest had reported a problem too. They were treating the whole floor this time instead of just one room at a time.

Posted by jaytravels 23:03 Archived in Nepal Tagged nepal rtw kathmandu bed_bugs Comments (0)

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