Life is Beautiful

I am sitting in the airport in Guatemala City. It’s 3:30 in the morning and the McDonald’s in the food court is beginning to show signs of life, though it may be hours before the & Café opens (“bring home the sabor de Guatemala!”)and I can get a cup of locally-grown coffee. I have never been so early for a flight, but in order to get an extra day with friends in Rio Dulce and avoid the bus-hotel-taxi hassle in the city, I opted to hire a bus privado for a middle-of-the-night ride to the airport. During the day, with traffic or construction delays added in, it can take anywhere from 6 to 10 hours. Tonight, it took less than 5, though I don’t remember any of it, since I was asleep, sprawled out across a row of seats in the back. My flight doesn’t depart for another 8 hours but waiting to drive a few hours later would have meant a risk of missing the plane.

I just opened my friend Hagit’s kind parting gift, which made me cry, of course. It was a beautiful purse made from typical Guatemalan fabric, and inside, a folio of photographs—memories to take with me back to Florida.

Tanya and Hagit, Mar Marina
Waiting for a baby…

Over the course of the last two weeks, she has folded me into her family, and I have become something more than the friend I was when I arrived. I came to help her with the birth of her fourth child, her first son, to stand in the place of her mother and sister who could not come from Israel. My last evening was spent celebrating Rosh Hoshana over apple crisp with the family and cruising friends while I held a sleeping newborn. It was a wonderful way to end the visit.

Tanya holding Cayo
Cayo, 5 days old

Planning a trip around the arrival of a baby, leaving my family for two weeks, and traveling from the Florida Keys to Rio Dulce, Guatemala: all these things are difficult. Without Jay’s willingness to take over school schedules and meal prep and drive me to and from Ft. Lauderdale, it would have been impossible. I arrived on the due date and then waited a week until little Cayo decided to join us. In between helping cook and clean, going to the doctor’s, and taking care of my sisterly duties (including being there for the birth), I was able to catch up with Wendel (and his sister Vivian), from my English class…

Tanya and Wendel (at work)
Wendel at work

Go to Anna’s ukulele class—she is a Brazilian sailor who used to be in my ukulele class…

Ukulele Class with Ana
Ana, 2nd to my left

Shop in town and play dominoes with Darelle, my South African friend…

Deon, Darelle and Tanya in Fronteras
Darelle and her son Deon of S/V Dreamcatcher II

Go visit Jerry and Griselda and the 10 kids at Casa Agua Azul…

Kids at Casa Agua Azul
Watermelon smiles

And hang out with Rudolph and Elisa of S/V Tulum III, cruising friends we met in Colombia a couple years ago. We also celebrated the 16th birthday of Hagit’s oldest daughter, Naomi, two days before her baby brother was born.

We went to the clinic in Morales a week after the due date. We took a colectivo, an inexpensive 45-minute ride on a mini-bus crammed full of people and air-conditioned by the wind. On the way, we noticed a slow-down as we passed through a village. Bystanders crowded both sides of the road, police were directing traffic, and there was a body lying on the sidewalk, half-covered by a sheet. We thought maybe there had been an accident. We proceeded to the clinic, where Doctora Ana Ruth checked the baby’s heartbeat, used the ultrasound to check amniotic fluid levels, and talked to Hagit about things she could do to speed the process along. I was there, in part, to translate. Dra. Ruth had good news: Hagit was dilated 5cm already, and the baby could arrive at any moment. She said she expected to see us again very soon, and we left. After lunch and cool drinks, we hopped back on a colectivo headed toward Rio Dulce.

Hagit and Peter
Lunchtime in Morales

Immediately, I knew this was going to be an adventure. Hagit and I squished into the front seat, where there was room for her belly, but the passenger door wouldn’t stay closed. Actually, I don’t think any door on that ancient Toyota van closed properly. Hagit took one look at the driver and whispered that she thought he had a crazy look in his eyes. And then I overheard the chatter between driver and money-collector. The road was closed because of a shooting (remember the dead guy?) and the bus was running off-schedule because they had to take the long-way-round. He began to make a series of rapid, jerky turns around sharp corners, bouncing over tumulos (speed bumps), and passing cars in narrow lanes. We implored him in Spanish to slow down—unless he wanted a baby born on his bus! When that didn’t help, we asked to be let off at the next esquina. Not wanting to lose the fare, he promised that we were almost out of the city and the ride would be smoother. Against our better judgment, we stayed on.

I have been on a lot of beat-up buses in the Caribbean with a lot of crazy drivers, but until that day, I had never really thought I might die on one. I was praying like crazy, trying to do yoga breathing to stay calm, and holding onto Hagit, who had a death-grip on the bar above the passenger seat. I suddenly found the situation comical and started to laugh hysterically—how did we get here, an American woman and her pregnant Israeli friend, hurtling down a pot-holed road past cattle trucks in Guatemala? Hagit joined me in my hysteria. And then something went clunk and fell onto the road behind us. The driver was forced to slow down. The chatter changed from how late they would be to la cruce (the turn to Rio) to how they were going to get the passengers onto other buses, and where they should stop. I breathed a prayer of thanks as the bus slowed dramatically. Thankfully, the driver chose a place to stop where we could sit in the shade. We clambered out of the front seat and waited for Peter to get out of the back. He had to climb out over a guy who had slept through the whole thing.

And, in the end, we did not die in a mini-bus on the road to Rio Dulce, and I did not have to help deliver a baby on said bus, or on the side of the road either (with nothing but hand sanitizer, a bottle of water, a clean shirt, and a pocket knife). We had time to make it home on another passing colectivo, take a shower, have something to eat, and pack a bag before heading back to the clinic that night. Perhaps that nerve-wracking ride was the straw that broke the camel’s back— a healthy 8-lb boy named Cayo was born at 2:30 in the morning after a 3-hour natural labor.

Healthy baby boy: Cayo

Having done it myself a few times, I can say with authority that Hagit is a childbirth champion. I accompanied the nurse when the tiny new human got his first bath and had the privilege of handing him to his happy mama. It was all well worth the wait.

Tanya and Hagit, bringing Cayo home
Bringing baby Cayo home
Family on S/V Rothim
Roth Family of S/V Rothim

The sky is beginning to pale behind the volcano, the coffee shop is opening, and in a few hours I will be returning to my home and family, heartful and happy.

FAQ: How do you come back?

“It was nearly dark, for the dull November twilight had fallen around Green Gables, and the only light came from the dancing red flames in the stove. Anne was curled up Turk-fashion on the hearthrug, gazing into that joyous glow where the sunshine of a hundred summers was being distilled from the maple cordwood.” L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

As we have traveled and discovered what the world has to offer, sometimes literally eating and drinking our experiences up, we have become a bit spoiled. For example, after swimming in the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas and enjoying pristine powdered-sugar beaches (often on an island we didn’t have to share with anyone else), coming back to Florida feels a bit disappointing. God forbid we express these sentiments—looking down our noses—to someone who just moved here from Wisconsin, for instance, who thinks the waters of Boot Key Harbor are mesmerizing. What boorish snobs!

Robinson Island
Bahamas 2013

How do we come back from experiences like we’ve had—a three-and-a-half-year Caribbean odyssey, for example—where the brilliance of our memories makes daily routines look dull and humdrum? How do we integrate the unforgettable moments from our journey into our daily lives and talk about them (when they come up in conversation) without sounding boastful? (“I swam with whale sharks…”) Rather than using comparison, which makes the day-to-day look dim, we must allow memory to enrich and inform new sensory input. And we can express gratitude for a cool experience instead of bragging.

Let me explain: I can’t taste a cup of coffee without thinking of the elixir that bears that name which I drank in the Panamanian cloud forest. But instead of bemoaning the poor imitation in my cup, I can taste that morning brew and glow for a moment in the light of my memory, like enjoying the firelight that offers the warmth of a hundred summers. I can relive that time-and-place, that taste of Geisha coffee beans—grown, dried, roasted, ground, and brewed on the side of that volcano in that forest where I hiked with my family and first saw howler monkeys up-close and witnessed a dozen varieties of hummingbird in a single afternoon. Heaven knows I won’t be trying to actually recapture the experience by brewing a cup of Geisha here and now—even if I went to Amazon.com and ordered the 6.7-oz. box of beans for $80, ground, and brewed them at home! Better to drink a cheap cup of coffee with cream and sugar and add a dash of memory. And savor it quietly, without needing to talk about it. Or, alternately, talk about it: maybe everyone has a favorite-cup-of-coffee memory, and that could be a springboard for a great conversation.

High Altitude Coffee, Boquete
High-altitude Coffee, Boquete, Panama

And, maybe, that is a good reason to travel: to “collect verbs instead of nouns” (thank you for that quote, Davina, wherever you are). We do it, not just to say we’ve been there and done that, but because we want to enrich our lives now and broaden our horizons here. Every sunset for me now contains the sunset from the top of a Mayan pyramid, and is consequently made more beautiful by it.

Sunset, Yaxha, Guatemala
Yaxha, Guatemala, 2018

We are so fortunate to have these memories. We had a few short years while our kids were still at home to make them, and now they will keep us warm for years to come, long after all the small people have grown up and moved on to their own adventures.

Sunset from a Mayan Pyramid, Yaxha
Basking in the glow…

Keeping Cool in the Keys: Summer Heat Survival Guide

It’s summer in Florida, and that means heat and humidity. Most (normal) people survive by turning on their air conditioners and hiding from the great outdoors. I don’t blame them…it is HOT! But here on a boat in a mooring field in the Florida Keys, we are intentionally living a little more simply, a little less expensively, and a little more closely to Nature.

Bobby the Viking
Summer 2010 in Boot Key Harbor, Bobby the Viking

In the summer of 2010, we spent our first season in Marathon, and didn’t have the boat set up to handle the heat. Boot Key Harbor is notoriously murkey, warm, and full of moving dinghies and fishing boats, making it unswimmable. Afternoon thunderstorms meant that we couldn’t always have the boat open, so it would get downright steamy inside. That summer was particularly bad for mosquitoes as well. We quickly developed some coping strategies.

We had a large blue canvas rectangle, which we tied tent-style over the trampolines, ice, and a blender. I would make frozen lemonade every afternoon, take a good read-aloud selection, corral the kids, and we would have a siesta out under the tent until the heat abated. Every night, we’d give the kids a cool-down shower in the cockpit and send them to bed wet, with a fan over each bed. We would seek cool places, like local restaurants with pools, the beach for a swim, or the air-conditioned library. Jay made some Velcro-on bug screens, and we bought wind-scoops and better fans. By the next season we spent in the Keys, we had shade awnings for the decks and cockpit.

Family
Boot Key Harbor 2013, shade awnings and cockpit shades
Tent Nap
Breeze Booster and Window Shades (background)
Shade Awnings
Bird’s Eye View of Shade Awnings and Breeze Boosters

The summer of 2015, before leaving for the Caribbean, we got really smart: we stayed at Marathon Marina and plugged in and turned on the new air conditioners Jay had installed. We were there between May and November, the hottest part of the year, but that was expensive, and we felt a little trapped, both inside the boat, and tied to a dock.

Take Two Marathon Marina 2015
Tied Down, Buttoned Up

This summer, in addition to all those stay-cool strategies, I made a list of menu items that don’t involve heating up the galley of Take Two. We’re also testing a single-burner induction plate that works with our cast-iron skillets, Oxo teakettle, and Kuhn-Rikon pressure cooker. It takes electric power, but doesn’t create as much heat as cooking over gas. And because it’s portable, we can cook in the breezy cockpit.

Even with these coping mechanisms, we sweat. If there’s a breeze, it’s more comfortable. But when the wind dies, the perceived temperature goes up and we find it hard to concentrate on school and work. Sleep is disrupted and tempers flare. Unless we decide to head to a marina, our only option is to start up the generator and run the air conditioner. This is a real luxury, as many boats have neither. On hot, still evenings, we can close up, run the air full-bore, then turn everything off just before bed. If we wake up hot, we open the hatches above the beds and usually it’s cooled down outside. The exception, of course, is when it’s raining. Not much we can do about that, but I guess that’s what it means to live closer to Nature!

Marathon Sunrise
Boot Key Harbor, 2010

Seven strategies for staying cool

  1. Shade awnings: Phoenix Square Sun Shade, from Amazon
  2. Window Covers/Cockpit Enclosure: Sunbrella Phiftertex/Phifertex-Plus mesh
  3. Wind Scoops: free-standing Breeze Boosters
  4. Good Fans: Fully adjustable Caframo 3-speed fans with timers
  5. Ice/Blender: Vitamix and Oxo silicone-covered stackable ice cube trays
  6. Generator and A/C
  7. Go to the library, find a place to swim

Summer Menu for a Cool Galley

  1. Grilled Cheeseburgers, with cole slaw and canned baked beans on the side
  2. Italian Pasta Salad, with tri-color rotini, broccoli, olives, and salami
  3. Shish Kebabs, with steak-mushrooms-veggies and chicken- pineapple-veggies
  4. Barbecued Chicken Salad Wraps
  5. Grilled Italian Sausages with green peppers and onions (in the grill basket)
  6. Tuna Pasta Salad
  7. Make-your-own Sub Sandwiches
  8. Black-and-Blue Steak Salad with blueberries, walnuts, blue cheese, & balsamic dressing
  9. Grilled Pizzas
  10. Make-your-own Chef Salad with ham, turkey, cheese, egg, cucumber and tomato
  11. Barbecued Chicken Legs with Caribbean Slaw
  12. Make-your-own Taco Salad
  13. Grilled Ribs with cold sides
  14. Fried Chicken, take-out with cold sides
  15. No-Press Cuban Sandwiches
  16. Chinese Chicken Salad with snow peas, red cabbage, carrots, and mandarin oranges
  17. Grilled Chicken and Portobellos with Marsala wine sauce and creamy parmesan orzo
  18. Fried Chicken Salad, with egg, tomato, and honey-mustard dressing
  19. Grilled Fish Tacos with chipotle sour cream and cabbage in wheat tortillas
  20. Sushi Night! Take-out Japanese or Local Ceviche
Caribbean Slaw
Caribbean Slaw

Head Out on the Highway, Looking for Adventure

Q: What’s scarier than teaching your teenager to drive a car?

A: Teaching three teenagers to drive at the same time!

Eli Driving 1
Eli Practicing at Lego Land
Eli Driving 2019
Eli practicing in a local neighborhood
Aaron Driving 1
Aaron Hot-Dogging It at Lego Land
Aaron Driving 2019
Aaron Playing It Cool in a Parking Lot
Sarah Driving 1
Sarah at a Lego Land Intersection
Sarah Driving 2019
Sarah Parking at IHOP

We’ve merged into the fast lane. Having arrived in the U.S. one month ago, we’ve made a lot of progress toward re-integration. Eli turned 18 and registered to vote. The three teenagers got phones and learner’s permits. At the end of the month, assuming they’ve jumped through all the right hoops, they’ll start their first dual enrollment classes at the local community college. Eli and Aaron are dipping their toes into the wide world of work this week as they join a construction crew with our friend Andrew (remember the captain of s/v Abby Singer?). Sarah sailed in her first regatta as crew on a Hobie 16. Sam is taking his Florida boater’s safety course to operate the dinghy solo. And Rachel checked out her first library books!

I’ve joined a Wednesday-morning Bible study, a yoga class, and committed to teaching high-school home-schoolers a U.S. Government class this fall. Jay has been fixing broken things on our boat now that we have access to parts and shipping, and working like crazy using unlimited high-speed internet. We’ve been having weekly date-nights to organize all these new adventures and support each other so that we’re ready for whatever comes our way.

Digesting the Experience

“Far too often in seasons of transitions, we tend to do one of two things. Either we forestall the ending because we cannot face the grief of the conclusion of an era, or we leap over the finish line and bound headlong into the next race without pausing to reflect on where we have been on the road to where we are going. Transition– good, heartful transition– requires both. Experiences do not change us. Reflecting on our experiences changes us. For every shift between a then and a now, our task is to reflect on what was and, as a result, what can now be. We must digest our experience in order to [go into the future].”—Chris Bruno

Track of Take Two, March 2016-July 2019

When we bought Take Two in 2008, we talked of taking our kids down to the Caribbean, enjoying beautiful clear water, catching fish, seeing the world in the microcosm of islands, and maybe learning another language. On Tuesday, July 2, we finished that dream trip as we crossed our track and motored toward our mooring in Boot Key Harbor, a place we left over three years ago with our then 14-, 13-, 11-, 9-, and 4-year-old children. We left as coastal cruisers with kids, but we came back seasoned blue-water sailors with young adults. The world seems wider now, but the boat smaller. We came back because it’s time to let the kids begin their own journeys, and our family and support systems are here. We came back to the same place, but we are not the same people.

Take Two in Boot Key Harbor
Take Two, Marathon, Florida, 2019

All of us are “digesting the experience” in different ways. It is wonderful, but weird, to be back in Florida. Some of us were excited to return to “the Land of Plenty” and familiar places and faces. Others of us are happy travelers, reluctant to rejoin the daily routines of land-life. Most of us won’t really understand what the travel has done to us until we gain some life experiences here in the U.S. and get a little perspective. The memories of the last three years, complete with the whole range of joy and misery, friendship and loneliness, excitement and boredom—are still too fresh. Even so, I asked everyone in the family to pause, if for only a moment, before a “new normal” sets in and we’re off exploring in different directions, and to reflect on their experiences as travelers.

Happy hour San Pedro
‘ Jay, San Pedro, Belize

Jay: I’m not really a cruiser. I’m just a guy who lives on a boat. I like the self-sufficiency: the boat is our house, it’s our office, it’s our school. We’ve just been doing “regular life” in foreign countries. In that way, coming back to the United States represents conveniences like easy shipping, good grocery stores, and fast internet, but doesn’t really change my day-to-day. There’s not a strong delineation between then and now.

For me the travel was really about the kids. It started as a way to show them the world, have some fun, and learn new things. We wanted our kids to see different cultures and get a broader picture of the world, but also to avoid being indoctrinated in the U.S. with negative things like materialism, promiscuity, entitlement, and instant gratification. While we had a lot of fun in the Eastern Caribbean, the trip really changed when we went west at the end of 2016. We had wanted our kids to learn Spanish, and what better place than Central America?

I think all our goals were met. Some of the results of the travel remain to be seen, but I’m happy with where our kids are right now. I would have liked some of them to step out of their comfort zones more often, but I think they saw enough and picked up enough because we were there so long. My comfort zone definitely grew. Things that would have freaked me out early on didn’t bother me later, and I realized I really like Central America. I can imagine traveling again, being nomadic, maybe spending more time in South America. Having done it once, leaving again would be easier.

Happy Hour
Tanya, San Blas Islands, Panama

Tanya: I’m struggling with this “conclusion of an era” part. This is likely the last big sailing trip we take with all seven of us. I knew it couldn’t last forever, but part of me secretly wanted the kids to stay small so we could just keep traveling around as a family. The other part wants to see the result of this experiment—parenting and homeschooling and traveling—to see what kind of interesting people my children will become as independent adults. Seeing your child transform into an adult is like giving birth in slow motion—it is painful, requires a long labor, and inspires curiosity—and I’m dying to meet the person emerging into the world.

Eli will be 18 this month, Aaron is 16, Sarah, 15, Sam, 12, and Rachel, 8. I am well on my way to becoming the shortest person in the family (even Sam is passing me up and Rachel shows no sign of slowing). There will be a steep learning curve as we rejoin our culture and the requirements of life in the U.S.—learning to drive, taking tests, figuring out educational options, meeting with old friends and new, and finding our places here (both literally and figuratively). I am sure we will continue to travel, as it is more who we are than what we do, but some of our trips will be by land, others by air, and the ones by sea might find us short a few hands.

Despite my sounding a little sad about the conclusion, the bottom line is that I have no regrets: we did what we set out to do. Take Two traveled around the world without having to cross an ocean—her crew met people from all over the globe, heard many languages spoken, experienced the cultures of the Old World while traveling in the New, lived in Central America long enough to understand and passably speak Spanish, made lifelong friends, gave back to the community, came into contact with indigenous peoples and remnants of their ancient civilizations, encountered incredible natural scenery and wildlife, and broadened horizons.

While the results of our book-learning remain to be seen, the benefits of travel and real-life learning are evident: we can sail, tie knots, take a night watch, fish, cook, play musical instruments, solve problems, make art, wash dishes, converse intelligibly with people of all ages, perform in public, hail a taxi or catch a bus, fix broken things, weave baskets, teach a class, get lost and find the way back, express our thoughts in writing, freedive, speak another language, drive on the other side of the road, and make friends cross-culturally. Not all of us can do all of these things, of course, but a wide range of skills and talents are evident, and I believe we have all developed a kind of confidence and comfort in the world that only travel can impart. I am not minimizing the difficulty and discomfort of rejoining the flow of life in our own culture, but as citizens of the world, I think we have a leg up. Furthermore, I have memories to cherish (and write about) for a lifetime, and without a doubt, more adventures to anticipate.

Eli, Finca Paraiso
Eli, Finca Paraiso Hot Waterfall, Guatemala

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”              –Roy Batty (Blade Runner)

Eli: Now that we’re back, I’ve had some time to reflect on our grand voyage. So, what exactly did this whole trip mean to me? Well, my home was there, so it wasn’t really a “trip.” We only left people behind. We had all our stuff; we did chores; we did school. The only thing missing was the social environment in which we would have been immersed if we had stayed. But we didn’t stay. We went far away and had all sorts of awesome adventures instead of staying in the same place with the same people. We spent many years and months away from the United States. My “social development” basically stopped when we left our society, and barely advanced in all our time among the islands. I don’t have a phone, I don’t know how to pick up a check, I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t have a job, I don’t even know very many people here. I’ve been left behind by all my friends, and I feel like I don’t fit in.

But I’m not sorry I missed out. Not at all. I don’t think I ever fit in, and I’ve never been very comfortable around other people. I like to travel. I liked seeing new places, and freediving and hiking and swimming and sailing every day. It was an amazing adventure. It was my life. But now that phase is over, and we’re here in the Keys, and I’m feeling both like I missed out on all my friends’ lives and like I would have regretted staying and missing out on the adventure. But I couldn’t have both. I’m happy with how things went, and I want to reconnect now. I want the relationships, but I also miss the cruising life. Technically speaking, our life now isn’t much different than it was in, say, Isla Mujeres or Guatemala. The real difference is that it’s not new. It’s an old place, with old memories associated very deeply. It feels totally different now than when we visited briefly here last year. It’s the end of an era, and that knowledge changes everything.

Our life didn’t radically change when we left “civilization,” but it did change in small ways. I feel that we became closer as a family, we became more conscious of our wealth in relation to others, and we learned to be more comfortable around the foreign. I came to feel sure and confident in that environment, and everything was good. Now, I don’t know what comes next, now that we no longer swim and hike and climb every day. School is changing, locations are changing. I miss the years spent on the ocean, if only because I know they’re over.

Aaron playing at camp
Aaron, Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Aaron: When we left the U.S., I was newly 13 and gave zero care to jobs, driving, college, and other related subjects, which was fine. Now that we’re back, I am almost 17 and still don’t care much about any of it, which isn’t so fine. I think I lost my motivation because I live on a boat, spend most of my time at home, and have next to no friends, so all of the aforementioned subjects seem far away and unimportant, while the opposite is true.

Aside from this almost complete lack of concern for untaken developmental steps and vacant area where “social status” ought to be, I think I’m basically the same person as I would have been if we’d never left. I grew my hair out, discovered new music, started working out, and started forming my outlook on life, regardless of location. I can understand the value of living in Central America for a couple of years, but it comes at a cost; it builds insulation from normalcy. I like being on the outside looking in, but I’m thinking that at some point I’m going to have to get in myself, and it won’t be any easier with such a late start. It’s a bit distressing to me to think that I could have been a licensed driver almost a year ago if we’d never left.

The most important things that I did while we were away were working at Agua Dulce Marina, making local friends in Guatemala, volunteering at Casa Agua Azul and the Rio Dulce summer camp, and climbing up the Acatenango Volcano. While similar opportunities in the U.S. might have built skills and self-confidence as effectively as the ones I had, I probably wouldn’t have been interacting with my surroundings in a different language and culture in the way that I was in Latin America. Also, our parents separating us from our peers was successful in sparing us from any teen drama that there might otherwise have been.

In conclusion, the position in which I stand isn’t entirely good or bad. I’m getting a late start in the flow of normal life, but I’m also entering with an outsider’s perspective. And I think Mom and Dad were right when they said, “trust us, when you look back on your life, you won’t regret this part of it.”

Sarah Diving, Roatan
Sarah, Roatan, Honduras

Sarah: All good things must come to an end. Not all good things are all good. And while I didn’t have a good time all the time, I think the last 3 years, 5 months, and 8 days we spent as a family traveling around the Caribbean were spent well, and I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything. When we left the United States to begin our trip, I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I would think things like “Someday I’ll get a job” or “Someday I’ll learn to drive a car.” Well, now it’s “someday” and that is scary. I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for “someday” while we were in the Caribbean, so now that we’re back in the States and about to be immersed in normal life (as normal as it gets for us anyway), I feel like I’m being hit in the face with responsibilities and choices that I’m not quite ready to take on. In a word: overwhelmed.

In a way, I feel like our trip back to the United States last summer helped me prepare for what we’re facing now. Before our visit I had very little idea of what was expected of someone in my age group, or how to accomplish those goals. Now I feel like I have a better idea of what to do and how to do it. It’s also great to be back in a place I can call home, to see familiar faces, and to know where I fit in. Living on a boat has always been, and always will be, a trade-off, and now we’re about to experience something completely different than we’ve been used to; but then, fear of the unknown is normal.

Sam Pacaya 1
Sam, Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

Sam: Each country or island we visited is like an individual person; each has a personality, a culture, and a history. When we went on our three year “tripwe were not on vacation, hanging out on white sand beaches or relaxing somewhere in a resort. When we came to a new island or country, we met it and we made friends with the locals, and learned from it, if we could. So when we came back recently to the United States, I did not necessarily look different on the outside (besides growing taller) but I carry with me on the inside something from the places I went and people I met. I carry not only experiences, like swimming with whale sharks and jumping in waterfalls, but skills, like freediving and palm-weaving, for example, and lessons, like “never interfere with wild animals,” or, “the ocean is unpredictable.” We also came back to the U.S. with a knowledge of the history of the places we have been. I feel that I am a happier person when we are traveling and if I sit too long in one place, I tend to get bored with it.

Little Surfer Girl
Rachel, Nosara, Costa Rica

Rachel: We live full-time on the boat. I can’t really explain what that’s like because it’s normal for me, but I can tell you some of the places we have been. We went to the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean. Then we went west to Bonaire, Colombia, Panama, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and back to Florida. I loved our adventures. I am a little sad that the trip is over (except for the times when I was seasick.)

Geography Report: Mexico

Note: This is the last of the Caribbean geography reports. As Mexico is such a large country, I have chosen to focus on the part of Mexico we visited, Isla Mujeres and the Yucatán peninsula.


Basic Facts

Capital: Mexico City

People/Customs: Nearly 30 percent of the Mexican population is indigenous (Mayan, Mixtec, Náhuatl, Otomí, Purépecha, Zapotec), 60 percent are mestizos, and the remaining 10 percent are white or other ethnicities. Most of the people practice Catholicism and even the indigenous people have mixed traditional religions with catholic practices. Most holiday celebrations include fireworks, music, and dancing. Day of the Dead (Día de Los Muertos) celebrations commemorate family members who have passed on by decorating tombs and creating elaborate alters at home.

Language: Spanish is the official language, but there are 68 Amerindian languages also spoken.

Climate: The climate zones of Mexico vary from snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra to tropical islands, making Mexico attractive to visitors looking for variety. The main regions include: tropical wet, tropical wet-and-dry, semi-arid, desert, temperate with dry winters, humid subtropical, and Mediterranean. Where we were, in Isla Mujeres, the weather was warm, sunny, and breezy with predominant easterlies, cold fronts with north wind in the winter and spring, and tropical waves and risk of hurricanes in the summer and fall.

Food/Farming: typical Mexican meals consist of corn, beans, rice, tortillas, squash, chilies, avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and a various meats, like turkey, beef, goat, pork, chorizo, and chicken. Mexico is also known for its delicious tacos. Corn has been Mexico’s most important food for thousands of years, and it has a religious significance for the Maya, Huichol and many other indigenous groups. Fruits grown in Mexico include: pineapples, citrus fruits, star fruits, mangoes, papayas, melons, tomatoes, and other tropical fruits. A popular drink is tequila, made from the agave plant.   

Government: The United States of Mexico has a Constitutional Republic, with a President as head of state.

Currency: Mexican Peso, about 18 pesos to the dollar.

Art/Music/Culture: The culture of Mexico is a mixture that comes from its history of Old and New World influences. Cultural influences include traditions from the Maya and other indigenous peoples, Spanish language, music and religion from the conquistadors and settlers, and a mixture of European, African, and Asian cultures that arrived later in Mexico. The Spanish brought Roman Catholicism, which became Mexico’s main religion and slowly mixed with the indigenous religious practices. Mexico has a rich artistic history, with world-famous artists like Frieda Kahlo, as well as arts and crafts like weaving, pottery, leather-working, and wood-carving. Decorated skulls are a common motif. Popular musical styles include mariachi and ranchera, which use the sounds of various guitars as well as violins, trumpets, and accordions.

History of the Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán’s oldest traces of humanity date back 11,000 years according to artifacts found in the Loltún caves and Tulum. It is supposed that the first Mayas arrived in the Yucatán around 2500 BC. The Maya had a knowledge of astronomy, math, and architecture, the evidence of which can be found all over Mexico in the form of pyramids, palaces, and other structures. The Maya were also good artists, based on jewelry, carved limestone, and plaster artifacts found at ruins.  

Around 600 AD the Maya civilization was at the height of its Classic period. The Maya lands at this time were not ruled as an Empire, but as a collection of independent city-states. Near the end of the Classic period, the Mayans moved to the Yucatán, with ruins like Chichen Itzá showing us construction very different from earlier Mayan settlements (Tikal in Guatemala, for example). After the Classic period, the collapse of the Maya came very suddenly. One theory is that as the Maya civilization grew, they were not able to grow enough food to feed the people. The Maya then weakened and were taken out when the invaders from central Mexico came.

Mexico was “discovered” by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1485. The Spanish came to the Yucatán in 1513 when Juan Ponce de León and Antón de Alaminos set out to find land west of Cuba and came across a large peninsula. The first attempt at the conquest of the Yucatán was made in 1527, when the Montejo family and a band of other men were sent from Spain to Cozumel, but they decided to sail around the peninsula and quell the unrest in Tabasco. They decided to establish their base near Campeche and push inland to conquer the Yucatán, but four years later they were forced back to Mexico City. In 1542, after allying with the Xiu, the Montejos defeated the Cocomes, and founded the city of Mérida. In four years’ time they had put most of the Yucatán under Spanish rule. The Mayans then became slaves for Spanish settlers.  

Throughout the colonial period, the native Maya and other indigenous groups continued to resist Spanish rule. The harsh treatment of natives by the Spanish led to many revolts, most of which were unsuccessful. In 1821, after a war with Spain, Mexico succeeded in becoming independent, and the Yucatán became part of the Mexican Federation. Despite the new government, the Maya were still forced to work under horrible conditions which led to the Caste War. In 1847, Mayan chiefs led a revolt against the descendants of Spanish settlers who had political and economic control. This act started an all-out war between the Maya forces and the Yucatecos (Spanish descendants). The war officially ended in 1901 but some of the small settlements and towns refused to acknowledge Mexican control. The war spilled the blood of over 200,000 people.

From 1876 to 1911, when Porfirio Diaz ruled Mexico, he brought the country into the Industrial Age. He passed laws that created an even larger number of landless peasants and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a smaller elite. In the Yucatán, wealth was acquired by making rope and other products from plant fibers. Diaz was removed from power in 1910 when a war broke out, sending the country into chaos for the next decade.   

By the 1970s, huge oil reserves were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, which brought new investors to the country. With new money coming in, Mexico invested in infrastructure on a large-scale, and installed a central oil processing complex in the Bay of Campeche, which was producing a million barrels of crude oil a day by 1981. The influx of oil money also led to the development of the Quintana Roo and Cancún as tourist destinations. With white sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise-colored water, and nearby ancient ruins to explore, this area soon became known as the “Riviera Maya” and attracted tourists from all over the world. While oil prices fluctuate, creating booms and busts, the tourism industry remains fairly constant, despite the occasional hurricane causing damage and requiring rebuilding.

Landforms/Flora and Fauna

Mexico is a large country and has a very diverse landscape. To the north is the U.S.A., to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, to the south, Belize and Guatemala, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean. Baja California is located in the northwest, a jagged finger of land with mountains and desert bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. Mexico has the world’s largest volcanic field. Central Mexico has the Sierra Madre mountains and a central plateau. Mexico City is in the south-central part of the country and boasts a population of 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area. The Yucatán Peninsula is flat, with a coral limestone bedrock covered by littoral forest and filled with sink holes, caves and cenotes. Isla Mujeres is a small island to the north of the Yucatán, surrounded by beautiful water and coral reefs. Because of this variation in land forms, the flora and fauna are found in equally diverse habitats—from pine forests to tropical jungle, from cactus-covered deserts to palm-fringed beaches, from treeless volcanic peaks to the fertile Bajío region where produce is grown. Some animals you might see in Mexico are spider monkeys, the rare axolotl (salamander), cacomistle (mammal), Mexican prairie dog, ocelot, cenzontle (bird), zoloitzcuintli (hairless dog), quetzal (bird), endangered vaquita porpoise, coati, and Mexican gray wolf. Near Isla Mujeres, you might go in search of whale sharks or sail fish, or see barracuda, snappers, colorful reef fish, and marine invertebrates while snorkeling and diving.

Things to do in the Yucatán/Isla Mujeres

On the mainland there are cenotes to explore, Mayan ruins like Chichen Itzá and Tulúm, beaches along Cancun or on Isla Mujeres, snorkeling and scuba diving along the Caribbean coast, visiting the Spanish colonial city of Mérida, horseback riding, and deep-sea fishing. Also, good tacos can be found almost everywhere!

Bibliography

“11 Awesome Native Animals You Must See in Mexico.” www.theculturetrip.com . Accessed July 2019.

“Mexico.” (Basic Facts) Wickipedia. Accessed June 2019.

“Mexico’s Seven Climate Regions.” www.geo-mexico.com. Accessed July 2019.

Onstott, Jane. National Geographic Travelor: Mexico. 2006: National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

“Yucatán Peninsula: History.” Lonely Planet. www.lonelyplanet.com . Accessed July 2019.

Completing the Circle

One of the things I love about a traveling life is how things come full circle—sometimes literally. We are one passage (a mere 400 nautical miles as the crow flies) away from crossing our outbound March 2016 track in our circumnavigation of the Caribbean Sea. In another sense, because we keep meeting up with old friends, we complete circles in relationships—sometimes a friend to whom we’ve offered assistance ends up assisting us.

We arrived in Isla Mujeres, Mexico in early May. A year ago, we were on the Western side of Roatan, anchored conveniently near the reef where we were freediving every day in clear water. One day, a youngish guy dinghied over and introduced himself. Originally from Argentina, Joaquin is a traveler, a sailing and SCUBA instructor, a musician—and now, a friend.

Joaquin

After introductions and polite conversation, he asked if he could borrow a SCUBA tank. He was taking a friend diving, and the local dive shops would not rent him gear unless he was going out diving (read “paying to go out diving”) with their outfit. We lent him the tank.

When he returned it, we had another good conversation and parted, as we often do, by saying “until next time.” Next time happened to be about 9 months later in Rio Dulce, Guatemala. The boat Joaquin had been sailing on, owned by his friends, was on the hard at our marina, where he was working on it and getting it ready for sale. He had spent much of the time since we saw him last working on a wooden ship-building project in Costa Rica (a conservation-minded program called CEIBA, find it at www.sailcargo.org). We got to catch up a bit, swap travel stories, and even share some music (he’s a great harmonica player). 

When we headed up to Antigua, Guatemala, at the end of March, we ran into Joaquin again. We invited him over for dinner and shared a lovely evening. He had shown us pictures of his trip up the Acatenango volcano and recommended Walter, the guide we chose for Eli and Aaron’s hike. He even (coincidentally) showed up to play live music at the restaurant where Jay and I were celebrating Jay’s 44th birthday later that week. When he mentioned he’d be heading to Mexico soon, we were pretty sure we would see him again. As it turns out, he was staying in Morelos, a small town near Cancún, and when I asked for advice about a field trip I was planning (to visit cenotes), he made a generous offer to help me plan—and even act as guide for—our outing.

Joaquin, Aaron, Sam at Cenote

We were about a dozen people from three boats coming over on the ferry for the day. Joaquin met us with a van and driver and we drove through Cancún, past all the beach hotels, and out into the wilds of the Yucatán. When Jay and I honeymooned here twenty years ago, this place was all about the beach. Sure, we went to Chichen Itzá and did some horseback riding in the jungle, but cenotes were not even “on the map.” Now, due in part to the hostile takeover of the beach by persistent Sargasso seaweed, people are looking for other ways to stay cool, and swimming in cenotes is big business.

A cenote (derived from the Mayan word for “well”) is basically a place where rainwater has dissolved limestone bedrock to expose groundwater—in Florida we would call it a sinkhole. In Mexico, it is a sacred watering hole that sustained the people and the animals of the Yucatán for thousands of years. The water is cold and clear, purified as it trickles though porous rock or runs through underground channels. Cenotes were believed to be an opening to the underworld, and there is archeological evidence that sacrifices were made in some of them to the Mayan rain God, Chaac. Some of them are “open” so that you can see the wide circular opening and others are “closed,” meaning a cave with water in it, often accessible through a small opening. There are thousands of them in Mexico. Some are still quiet little places in the middle of the jungle, but the ones near Cancun are popular with tourists. The wilderness has a paved road now, with good signage, and entrance fees.

So, given that ours would be a day-trip, we drove about an hour away, down the “Ruta de Los Cenotes” and went for a swim. Joaquin, ever the thoughtful guide, wanted to make sure we got something from—and gave something back to—the experience. As a community of long-term travelers, we are more than tourists with a vacation mentality; we are visitors and observers, aware of our impact on fragile environments and communities. Instead of buying plastic-packaged snacks, for example, we stopped at a local fruit-vendor to buy natural goodies. And conversations throughout the day centered on the history of these sacred places, the pros and cons of development, the economic and cultural impact of tourism, the thoughtless destruction of nature, and what we can do about it during our short lives on earth. Of course, in addition to these more serious thoughts, there was plenty of monkeying around, both figuratively and literally.

Cenote Fun

We arrived early to Cenote Verde Lucero, nearly the only visitors in this quiet place. The spider monkeys were still out and about, and we were warned not to leave snacks where they could be snatched. It was a beautiful place—it was easy to ignore the deck, the stairs, the picnic tables, and other signs of tourism—and see only the mirror of sky in a fresh water pool fringed by trees in the littoral forest. After the initial quiet of observation, the kids made the most of the cool water—shattering the surface of the mirror by jumping in from the top of the steep sides, dropping in from the zipline, and shaking each other off the rope suspended across the cenote.

Sarah Jumping in Cenote

With masks and fins, some of the kids explored the cenote and discovered that the middle was shallower than the sides (evidence of roof-material from a cave-in) and that there were small fish hiding among the rocky ledges and tree roots. I paddled around, taking pictures, laughing at the kids’ antics, and admiring the trees, which were thirstily reaching down the steep sides of the cenote for a drink of water.

Cenote Tree

After swimming, we came up for snacks. We had carefully hidden all our fruit and drinks, but it turns out the monkeys had grown bold with all the tourists, and they weren’t merely reaching into bags—they would come up to the table and snatch whatever they could find, right in front of us. They caught us by surprise while we were snacking, and we lost a bunch of small bananas before we scrambled to hide the rest. Rachel, having had a bad experience with spider monkeys (see “When Monkeys Attack,” December 2017), quickly retreated to a safe distance.

Banana Thief at Cenote

We took a short walk through the littoral forest, remarking how similar the flora looks to that of south Florida, and then turned back toward the cenote. A large group had arrived and was noisily entering the cenote—a couple dozen people in orange life jackets. We beat a hasty retreat.

On the way out, we noted, off to the side, a clearing in the center of which lay a “temazcal”—a Lakota sweat lodge where people can come for purification ceremonies. The spiritual significance of the cenote may have changed in the last five hundred years, but there is still a sense that the place is sacred, and an acknowledgment that fresh water in a hot place is life-giving and precious.    

We went next to a closed cenote, La Noria. It was removed from the main road by a long and bumpy dirt path, a promising sign that things hard-to-get-to are less-frequented. It was nearly noon when we got there, and the sun was directly overhead, perfect timing for the light in the cave. Once again, we were nearly the only people there, and after we arrived, the other small group left and we had the place to ourselves. There were two entrances, one a small tunnel into which descended a spiral staircase, and another bigger opening in the cave roof.

Noria Cenote Swim

Inside, it was beautiful, with its reflections of stalagtites in the water, bats flitting around, and clear, cold water lit only by a column of sunlight from the narrow entrance. It was a stark contrast to the wide, sunlit swim of the morning.

Noria Cenote

Once again, some of the kids donned masks and fins and explored beneath the surface, and several of them jumped into the water through the skylight. I was interested again by the appearance of tree roots—some reaching through twenty-five feet of limestone in search of moisture. Without sun exposure, the water was cold, and we swam until our teeth chattered.

Noria Cenote Opening, Joaquin

Afterwards, we went to Morelos for lunch—Joaquin knew a local place with good food. It always makes me happy to hear my kids ordering confidently in Spanish. We then went for a short walk on the beach—noting the rafts of sargassum that clog the shoreline and rot in the sun. More conversations ensued—what kinds of change we can and cannot control, the growing awareness among young people of a need to take care of the environment, but also our own joy and gratitude in the face of these difficulties. It had been a wonderful day—perfect weather, good friends, cool, clear water, food, and fun. We parted, as always, with the acknowledgment that our lives are transient, and though goodbyes are frequent, so are the serendipitous reunions.

Cenote Group Photo

Bless this Mess

I took some pictures today of what our boat REALLY looks like. Usually we clean up or hide the mess before we take photos to post. But this morning, I took a closer look at our clutter, and before griping about it or demanding the kids tidy up, I took the opportunity to let it tell me something about the stage of life we’re in.

Rachel left some Play-doh out, and her plastic dishes (on which she had made me pancakes and bacon). This reminds me that we are nearing the end of the Play-doh years. Soon, there will be no little bits of blue or pink goo ground into rugs or stuck on the rear-end of my shorts, but also no little girl to clean up after.

Toy Mess

School books, which are supposed to be put away at the end of every weekday, were left out over the weekend. We have two boys nearing graduation, and I am reminded that my work with them as a teacher/academic advisor is nearing completion.

School Mess

The desk/guitar practice area is kept pretty organized by the musicians who play there, but it’s still a lot of stuff in a small area. How quiet it will be when Aaron moves off the boat, taking his beat-up guitar and all the coils of cable and electronic equipment with him.

Music Corner

The kitchen stove is disgusting. We went out for dinner (just grownups!) last night and left the kids in charge of cooking for themselves. The spaghetti explosion is the result. Instead of waking someone up to take care of the mess, I reflected on the fact that I got to go out without kids last night, and that I have capable kids who can cook for themselves.

Cooking Mess

The bar, or catch-all, sports a grocery list, school-work to grade, a computer, an SAT prep-book, camera, sunglasses, a Mexico travel guide, and other detritus from our busy life. A lot goes into organizing school, meals, laundry, boat repairs, and travel for a family of seven. As the kids grow up, I will have a lot more time to keep the boat clean, but I will really miss them and their messes.

Bar Mess

None of this is earth-shattering. Lots of moms have come to the same logical conclusion. If mess=family and family=love, then mess=love. My prayer this morning: Forgive me, Lord, for complaining about that for which I should be grateful. Let me serve this family without grumbling and nagging,and appreciate what I’ve got before it’s gone.

Acatenango

The area around Guatemala City is elevated, mountainous, and volcanically active. One of the most prominent of the volcanoes in this area, Fuego (Spanish for “fire”), has been erupting regularly and has recently produced enough ash to close the airport in Guatemala City about thirty miles away. Right next to Fuego lies Acatenango, a dormant volcano from which hikers can obtain a stunning view of the eruption from less than two miles away. It’s not an easy view to obtain though, because unless you hire a helicopter, you’ll have to hike eleven miles round trip with a pack full of water and cold-weather clothes to the summit, where the eruption can be seen. Even without the added twenty-to-thirty pounds of backpack, climbing up the 5,150-foot elevation change on volcanic gravel trails would be tough.

On a recommendation from some friends, and because we knew we didn’t want to miss such a cool opportunity, we decided to do it during our week-long visit to Antigua in April. After talking over what we knew about the hike, it was apparent that the whole family would not be going on this excursion. We reached the conclusion that only Eli and I would go with Walter, a trusted guide recommended by Joaquin, a friend of ours who had previously done the hike with him. We each packed five liters of water, some snacks, and all the warm clothes we own. We would be hiking about five hours up to base camp, then remaining there until 4:00 AM, when we would be getting up to hike the remaining hour and a half to watch the sunrise from the peak. At an elevation of 13,045 feet, the temperature can drop below freezing and the wind chill can be wicked, though it seldom rains or snows due to lack of moisture.

We met Walter at the Parque Central of Antigua at 7:00 AM, said “adios” to Mom and Dad, and followed Walter to the bus terminal. The first bus took us to a neighboring town outside the old city from which we rode a second bus to a town lying at the foot of Acatenango. There Walter made some last-minute preparations, then we rode in the back of a truck up to the trailhead. We disembarked from the truck, bought hiking sticks for five Quetzales apiece (less than $1), shouldered our packs, and started hiking around 9:30 AM.

Acatenango Hike, Before

The first part was probably the worst, because it took about an hour for us ascend the dusty trail that runs between cultivated fields before we started getting any shade—we were prepared for cold, but not for heat. From there we basically trudged uphill for four more hours until we reached base camp. The scenery was actually quite nice, but when we weren’t resting, all we really cared about was making it as far as possible before we had to stop again.

Rest stop Acatenango Hike

We were by no means the only ones doing this; we saw several other groups going up and several more going down from the previous day. The last part of the hike to base camp was probably the best (that and bumming around base camp just watching the volcano) because it was mostly flat. Base camp consists of several terraces in the mountainside where rows of tents can be set up.

Acatenango Base Camp

We arrived around 2:30 PM and were immediately presented with an amazing view of Fuego. We set down our packs, sat down, and watched for a while as occasional plumes of ash and smoke billowed from Fuego like a chimney. Every once in a while we’d be able to hear it exploding and see chunks of rock go flying. But most of the time there was not much more to see than some cool cloudscapes. We decided that clouds are only interesting from above; from below you only get to see the flat bottoms.

Fuego from Base Camp 1

Up to this point we had been wearing pants and T-shirts and had been rather hot. Now that we had ceased our strenuous exercise, we started packing on the layers. We helped Walter pitch our tent, then we took a little nap until it came close to sundown when we put on more layers and went to watch the sunset from a nearby vantage point. We took pictures of ourselves in front of Fuego, but it refused to erupt dramatically as long as we were holding the camera. It was still a sweet view, pretty high up on the list all the awesome things that I’ve seen. Erupting volcano? Yeah, definitely in the top three.

It got better after dark, because it was possible to see more color than in daylight. When it erupted, we didn’t just see clouds of ash, we also saw the reddish orange of the glowing lava spewing out from the top of the barren rock cone set against the darkening evening sky. It really was that dramatic; I’m not exaggerating. It was just like the cover of a national geographic magazine, with little orange lava particles being ejected with considerable force from Fuego just a few miles away. Unfortunately it was impossible to capture pictures that reveal what it looked like—when we tried to photograph fountains of lava, all we got was black background with orange splotches.

We sat around the fire with some people from a different group, ate dinner with the erupting volcano in the background, and then went into our tent to sleep. Or so we hoped. The hours between 8:00 PM and 4:00 AM ticked by agonizingly slowly. Neither of us could have gotten more than four or five hours of sleep and certainly not uninterrupted. The most probable reasons were the lack of pillows, the cold, and a mental giddiness caused by our location. Once during the night I became sick and spent some time outside the tent, though even now I can’t imagine why, because I felt fine afterwards.

We were awakened in the dark of early morning for the final push to the summit. Eli and I removed most of the contents of our packs to make them lighter, put on all of our extra clothes, and continued the upward journey. Not too long after we started, a little bit of light was visible on the horizon and we ascended past the tree line. There was no longer any vegetation at all, just black pumice for the rest of the way. The last stretch was possibly the most grueling hundred yards that I have ever traversed. Combined with lack of sleep and fatigue from the previous day, the almost 45° incline and the sliding gravel ensured that each step was as tortuous as possible.

Aaron at Acatenango summit, view of Fuego

The first thing I did when I got to the top was lie down and enjoy the view (and also the fact that there were no more uphill slopes in my near future). And the view was indeed worth all the trouble; from an elevation 13,045 feet we were actually looking down on Fuego, which was 700 feet below us at a height of 12,346 feet. We were also considerably higher than the clouds, which created a flat grey plane covering the ground below us. It was quite stunning.

Sunrise Acatenango

And the volcano was even better, because we could still see all of the color, but also much closer and from a different angle. We could see it explode upward then fall and ooze down the side. We were not the only ones to see it; after a while there was actually a bit of a crowd—maybe twenty to thirty people around one of the more prominent viewpoints.

Fuego eruption from summit

It was also really cold. Not just the temperature but also the wind chill had us freezing inside all of our layers within fifteen minutes. Not what you might imagine of tropical Guatemala.  We drank some blessedly hot tea that Walter had brought in a thermos, took some triumphant photos, and just generally enjoyed our sense of accomplishment. The top of the volcano on which we stood looked like the surface of another planet: only black gravel, pale dawn sky, several mounds surrounding a central crater, and a white metal shelter constructed as a memorial in the middle of the crater, looking like a habitation module from Earth. I also felt kind of like an astronaut in all of my layers, standing against the harsh, cold, alien wind.

Volcano Descent

After a little while, Walter suggested that we start down, so we picked up our packs and followed him back down. We took a slightly different path down which made it possible for us to basically run straight down. If I’d had a snowboard or something, I probably would have been able to ride it on the loose material. At any rate it was fast, fun, and not too hard on the ankles. Upon our return to base camp, we changed into lighter clothes for the hike down, ate a quick breakfast, packed up, and started walking. We were the first to start hiking, and only passed one solitary hiker near the trailhead who was the first person coming up for the day. It was all downhill and we ran some of the way, covering the same distance as the day before in less than half the time.

Five minutes from the end though, Eli and I both suffered the only injuries we received on the entire trip. Eli slipped and ripped his jeans, and I, in classic Aaron-fashion, tripped and landed face first, cutting my lower lip. It looked kind of messed-up for almost a week afterward. After quickly self-administered first aid, I rejoined the other two, and we took the truck and bus rides back to Antigua, where we met Mom, Dad, and Sam. We took leave of Walter and finished our trip with celebratory pulled-pork sandwiches at Pappy’s BBQ and went home for much-needed showers and naps.

Acatenango Hike, After

Hiking with Jungle Jerry

Life here in the Rio Dulce has settled into a daily rhythm, and things have begun to move in a sedate and predictable manner. Life is steady, possibly even monotonous. Weekdays, for the most part, follow this general pattern: get up early, do school for five hours in the tropical heat, call it quits and play basketball in the afternoon, go for a swim, take a shower, play video games or watch an episode of Star Trek before dinner, eat, go to bed. Weekends are a little different, but are still predictable. On Saturdays, Aaron and I go volunteer at an orphanage, and work our butts off for most of the day. We are often accompanied by Deon, a friend of ours from South Africa. We work in the dirt until the afternoon, when Jerry (the house father) drives us home. Then we swim and play for the rest of the day. Sundays, we have a pancake breakfast and goof off in the afternoon; sometimes Dad takes us wakeboarding on Lake Izabal.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with a repetitive week, but for people who are used to changing locations every few months, it can get a little dull. So we leap at any opportunity to break the trend, get out of the boat (and school) for a day, and do something awesome. Our marina in the Rio Dulce is in the shadow of a national park on a large mountain covered by lush rainforest. Our friend Jerry from the orphanage where we volunteer is often lovingly referred to as “Jungle Jerry” because he leads rainforest hikes on occasion. We asked him to take us into the jungle and he agreed to take a day off and show us a part of Guatemala we might not otherwise experience.

Jungle Jerry and Deon

I didn’t quite know beforehand what it would be like. All I knew was the general area where we would be hiking (in the hills further down the river), how we would get there (in Jerry’s little SUV), and what time I had to wake up (7 a.m.). The early hour was possibly the least pleasant aspect of the outing, but it was well worth it. We packed lunches, snacks, spare articles of clothing, a camera, and water bottles in two backpacks. We put on sturdy shoes and hopped in the dinghy. Dad drove us over to the restaurant where Jerry would be picking us up. On the way, we grabbed Deon. Jerry was waiting for us; Mom, Aaron, Deon and I piled into his vehicle and drove off.

We drove over the bridge and soon left the noise, chaos, and urban squalor of Fronteras behind in favor of the tranquil scenes of pastoral squalor that comprise much of Guatemala. Jerry told us entertaining stories about his childhood in Guatemala and his life in the U.S., including his time in the Marines. Suddenly we turned off the highway and became off-road explorers. Such radical changes in terrain are quite common here. One minute, you can be driving down a well-paved road with flat pasture-land on either side, and the next, through dense hilly rainforest on a muddy track, rattling your teeth out as the road dips and bumps over rocks. Jerry’s vehicle is a hardy off-roader, an Isuzu Amigo, the sort of car you get when you cross a jeep wrangler with a pickup truck and drive it around for a few years on bad roads. It has seats for five, but by Jerry’s count, it can carry up to ten people (an assertion we put to the test on one occasion). It has little in the way of comfort, but she’s got it where it counts.

We drove for almost an hour on prodigiously bad roads, through two shallow rivers, and deep into the hills. The land near Rio Bonito was verdant and cultivated with palm oil plantations which rose up on either side, covering the road with a green arched roof, with the overgrown trunks forming ranks of shaggy green pillars. We stopped and disembarked. Jerry took his vehicle a ways down the road to park, and came back with two local guides and a few scrawny dogs. In single file, we followed the guides (and dogs) off the road.

Palm Oil Plantation, Rio Bonito

At first the path went through the palm plantation, and the ground was muddy and dotted with cow manure. Then the orderly rows of palm trees ended, and we began to ascend. The path became narrower, and the guides up ahead hacked away at the encroaching vegetation with machetes. The dogs ran off into the woods to hunt. Sounds of their chase would echo back to us from time to time. The trees were very thick, and covered with vines and moss. The slowly-rising ground was split by roots and covered with fallen leaves. The air was humid and heavy, but not too hot as the day was mercifully overcast. But the path snaked ever onward and upward, and it wasn’t long before we were perspiring like professionals.

The trail went up and up. It was often very narrow, cutting into the side of the wooded hills. The sound of insects filled the air. Aaron and I traded off the big backpack every now and then; Mom, puffing behind us like the Little Blue Engine, carried her own small pack. After about an hour of trudging upward, enveloped in our own personal banks of fog, we reached the top of the hill. We waited for Mom to catch up, then we trudged down the other side. The other side was lot steeper, and we found ourselves stumbling and sliding as often as walking.

Jungle Hike, Rio Bonito, Guatemala

Before long, we reached a broad, shallow, and fast-moving stream. We took off our shoes and waded across, then continued upstream. I didn’t catch on to the fact that this was a waterfall hike until I could see the waterfall (although the name “Rio Bonito” should have cued me in). And what a waterfall! It rushed out from a wide gap between two great piers of black rock thrust out from the sides of the valley, and tumbled into a series of deep pools, each turquoise pool hidden from the next. We took off all unnecessary clothing items and began the exploration of the falls.

Waterfalls near Rio Bonito 2

The water was frigid and fast-moving. Diving into the turbulent pools, we discovered tunnels that ran under the rock. We scaled the rock faces, swam and climbed up the curved canyon, and found more pools and falls. It was otherworldly—like something from a movie set. Mom followed us up the first canyon, then swam back to relax and eat lunch. One of our Mayan guides hunted snails by the rocky pools, his faithful dogs following him around, leaping from rock to rock over swift-moving water.

Mauricio with his Perros

Climbing up icy waterfalls in your underwear may be fun, but it gets pretty tiring after a while. So we swam over to the small rock island downstream where we had dumped all our stuff. We opened our weighty backpacks and lightened them a little. After a delicious lunch of sandwiches and carrot sticks, we donned our clothes and shoes, and plunged back into the jungle. The way back seemed easier, probably because all that uphill we did at the beginning was now mostly downhill. Now that we weren’t straining to get up the hill, we were free to enjoy the surrounding wilderness in relative comfort. As an added plus, the sun had finally come out, bathing the forest in a pleasant, green, leaf-filtered light and warming us after our brisk swim.

The trail ended, but we continued down the road toward the village where Jerry had parked his vehicle. The palm plantation dissolved abruptly into rolling sun-drenched cow pasture. The walk to the village was long, and we talked while we ambled, with the dogs barking and chasing cows in the background.

Palm Oil Plantation

The village was small and indigenous, something I usually associate with grime and poverty, but this place was immaculately clean. Most of the buildings were elevated on stilts, with hand-cut board walls and palm-thatched roofs. Colorful blankets fluttered from clothes lines. Hammocks hung on porches. Women washed clothes down at the river. It was very National Geographic. Jerry told us that when he first visited the village, the children were afraid of Gringos eating them (a threat parents made to get good behavior). Apparently, they were still afraid, because there were none in sight. Just tiny Mayan eyes peeping out at us from window cracks. We reached the car. The guides produced coconuts and speedily lopped the tops off with machetes, then handed them out as refreshments. We sipped the coconuts, tipped the guides, and drove home.

Village of Rio Bonito

The hike showed us a Guatemala we had not seen before; long ago, the entire country must have been like this, blanketed completely by trees and undergrowth. Now, the landscape is a patchwork of cattle-strewn grassland, dense groves of banana trees, and orderly ranks of rubber-trees or palm-oil plantations, the rainforest held back by machetes and a few feeble strands of barbed wire. But the jungle remains, thick, dark, and lush, lurking just beyond the property lines.