Monday, June 24, 2013

Trying to e-mail a blog post.....

10:56 AM 6/23/2013 - I arrived in Managua ... two nights ago (?).

On my last Belize City morning, I ate like a king, found a US$2 haircut (buzz cut w/#3 clippers.  Hard to justify charging/spending too much money) .

Caught my 11am airport shuttle to Philip Goldson (I'm sure he matters, but have NO idea who he is/was) International Airport, where I had about 6hrs to ... do nothing -- on the short list of what I do best.

Beers with the couple from N'Oleans ?  Heck, no.  They were hammered.  I was out of my league.  A Snickers bar, on the other hand, was just my speed !

I just hung around.  

Flew to San Salvador, El Salvador, where ... our flight was delayed by HOURS due to torrential downpours.

Boarded.  Things went well.  Arrived Managua, Nicaragua a few hours late.  Our driver for La Mariposa School was there, enthusiastic, and only slightly miffed to have waited an extra two hours.  

But he drove like a brave, stereotypical, Latin American madman, and dumped me off at something like midnight.  I crawled under my mosquito netting, gobbled a couple of Benadryl, and conked out.

Awoke early, got coffee, got breakfast, and was summoned to class.  First = conversation; second = grammar.  Monday through Friday.  Mornings.  That's the drill.

Edwin was my conversation teacher, and -- not surprisingly -- we yakked for a couple of hours.  

Break.  Switch over.  Jenni taught grammar, and rode me hard :-)

I THINK I'm not advanced as they think I am, but it's all one-on-one, so I can put the brakes on, if/when/as needed.

What IS the "Subjunctive Case," anyway, and ... why would/should I care ??

Four hours of class.  Head spinning.  Take a break.  Eat.  Eating's a big thing, here.  Works for me.

The afternoons are 'punctuated' with scheduled activities.  At 1pm, I listened to Danillo give a talk about current events -- the helicopter crash that left eight army colonels and a couple of civilians dead; the Social Security debate/debacle; cultural traditions that affect the SS debate.

He's an older man, and doesn't speak particularly clearly, so Sage -- an intern from Vail, Colorado -- helped translate.  I like her, but she's really good in Spanish, so ... I force myself to resent her, simultaneously ;-)

The next activity was a trip to Emma's Bar/Restaurant, from 5p to 7p.  I drank more than my fair share of ... whatever the local hooch is called.  I also ate an order of carne asada, which made me re-think the vegetarian thing -- it was that bad.  

Power tools would have helped with the cutting.  THIS ... is primarily why I stopped eating meat.  It fights back, in the worst case ;-)

Got home at about 8:30pm, tired.  Showered up, was wearing a towel and brushing my teeth when the driver knocked on my door.


Uh ... I already ate dinner ... at the bar.

Yeah ... dinner.

No.  Remember ?  I arranged it with the kitchen that they did NOT have to make me dinner, because I was GOING TO eat at the bar.

Uh-huh.  Dinner.  Come on.

I followed him.  What can I do.   He's bigger than me.  I ate again.  Took one for the team.

What a guy !

Woke the next morning, and had to prepare for a hike, up the Mombacho Volcano.  An hour drive to hike in the just sweltering humidity.  It was actually a fair hike up a fair pitch ... in sweltering humidity :-)

At the top, it was too cloudy to see _anything_ -- not the incredible (?) view of the lake and the islets; not the hike to the two big craters; not the fumarole (steaming vent hole).

But lunch was good ;-)

The walk back down was a bit treacherous.  The clouds had caused a fair bit of condensation on the otherwise just-about-slick stone road surface.  Just a bit of skiing involved.

It was about 2-1/2hrs, each way, so ... a legit hike.  I forget the altitude gain.  Not intense, but really formidable pitches for the last 2/3rds of the ascent.  4WD LO territory, on "pavement."

A coffee plantation/cafe/gift shop about a third of the way up.  THINK is was called Cafe los Flores, but ... if anybody's really interested ... it's in Mombacho, Nicaragua, and it was intensely good !

Got our ride back to La Mariposa, ate another wonderful dinner, yakked a while, and headed for bed, mosquito netting tucked up securely around the mattress and frame.

This morning, I caught a bus to San Marcos -- a larger (every town is larger than the one where La Mariposa sits !) town, about 20 minutes away.  Bought laundry detergent, and got money from the ATM.  Have to start chipping away at my bill.

Caught the bus back, after walking around San Marcos for an hour.  There's some kind of moving fair going from town to town, where they carry some sort of statue TO each town, march, have parades, have bands playing, and light off _tons_ of _extremely_ loud fireworks.

Annnnnnd, it carries on through the night !

I'm going to veg for a bit.  WiFi is challenging, here.  We're off the grid, so it's only by solar power, only for certain daytime hours, and only accessible from a common area very near the office.

I'll have to copy-and-paste e-mails to respond, and do the blog thing via text files, e-mailing those TO the blog for updates.  The common area is also exposed when the wind drives the rain, and ... is pretty well in the sun when the weather is good.  Nobody else seems to be having trouble with this, but ... I am ;-)

Good people staying/studying, here.  A FEW teachers, on summer break.  Mostly college students, either studying just to learn Spanish, or -- in many cases -- preparing to do some sort of NGO work, in Latin America.  I'm a bit envious of both.  My story -- which they DO ask -- doesn't line up with either group.  I'm just ... me :-)

Lila and Mary Margaret are from the DC area.  William and Christine teach in New Hope, PA.  Mike teaches in the Chicago area, but has lived in Michigan (the UP), Arizona, California, Colorado, New York, and Florida.  We SHOULD know each other :-)

Ruth is an intern from Holland (Netherlands).  She thinks it's cute that I can say, and pronounce well, the Dutch word for "gynecologist."
Yuki is an intern from Japan.

No pictures, yet.  Nothing of particular photographic note.

The room is clean and comfortable.  Not too hot, but over 90% humidity.  A fan keeps the air moving, and CAN be used -- so they tell me -- in the night.  Even with this, my nylon shirts are /barely/ dry, come morning.  Unique !

And the mosquitos are fierce.  Using DEET more than once a day, and have taken to spraying my shirt with it.  Mosquitos in Nicaragua, as it turns out, love me, too ;-)

Back to school, tomorrow, where -- hopefully -- I won't feel at all despondent about my Spanish.  I trust that, when they have me in an advanced class, that I actually DO speak and understand better than I think I do, but have impressed upon them that I have great difficulty understanding TV shows, and engaging in serious dialogue with locals.

But I have five weeks to work on that ... here ... in Los Clases de Espanol ... al Instituto de la Mariposa ... in ... The Gulag.

Monday, June 17, 2013

In/around Benque & Being an Illegal Alien.....

The last couple of days were (gee: what a shocker !) hot, and with a tropical depression building, ominous clouds and even higher humidity came a-knocking.

But yesterday, I took a hike up to the neighboring town, called San Jose Succotz.  It's also right on the Mopan River, and very near the ruins of Xuanantunich, where I horsed around, the other day.


Succotz was just a sleepy, bucolic place populated with friendly people.  It was Sunday, so nothing was really open, but that didn't much matter, because .... there wasn't really anything there to BE open.

But Bless the Chinese grocery merchants.  They're open seven days a week.  A bunch of drinkable yogurts and a bag (way too full) of sweet rolls, made with whole wheat flour, kept me fueled for that hike.  Time out: about 4hrs.

After cleaning up and resting in the a/c, a bit, I went down to the hotel lobby.

[This is going to get a bit long and detailed.  It may not hold general interest.  If you want to skip it, or you find yourself nodding off ... skip on down to the bold, black line, below, and I'll return to more conventional travel narrative stuff !]

The two Steves were there.  It just makes sense that there were two.  Why ?  I've stopped asking.

Steve R is a Canadian ex-pat -- age 45.  He used to own the hotel.

Steve L is a US (Hollywood, CA, and Florida) ex-pat.

We talked a lot about ... well ... everything.  It started with Belize info.  Steve R is -- among other things -- a real estate and relocation guy who's been here a while.  He's a treasure trove of information.

Then, we talked about the hotel, and how to increase its revenue.  They asked me my opinion on a whole laundry list of things, "as a typical guest," and -- eventually -- I told them my thoughts.

In short, Benque Viejo del Carmen is NOT on the map.  San Ignacio -- up the road -- is.  They share the same access to the same attractions (mostly natural/adventurous/outdoorsy), but San Ignacio has critical mass, infrastructure, and has spent marketing dollars.

If you build it, they will come.  San Ignacio did.  Benque ... would have to.  It's actually closer to most of the region's attractions, but lacks adequate infrastructure to create the tourism draw.

I told them that the town's marketing brochure listed about a dozen Benque attractions, none of which was particularly interesting.  I said that it should be marketed regionally -- the same stuff that San Ignacio touts.

They got all giddy.  The grabbed a poster that they'd created.  On it, they listed 125 attractions within something like an hour away.

I told them that the poster -- while excellent -- was too late.  Get the marketing online.  Make all 125 things clickable links, and make sure your hotel guests have a way to get to each of those things, including a guide where necessary.

The conversation was getting really great.  I enjoy the business of business.

Are there business owners who might stand to profit to whom you can turn to form a Tourism Board to aggregate a few marketing dollars ?  Is your website up to date (hint: not even close) ?  Do you have access to guides ?  Who's your customer ?  What happened to the Mopan River Resort (all-inclusive, expensive) -- now defunct -- across the river ?  What sort of occupancy rates was it running ?

Then we talked about the facility.  Again, to short-hand the conversation: should we put TV's in the room ?  Do people want to watch TV ?  Would they pay for it ??

I'm not typical.  Because I'm visually impaired, I love/need TV.

But won't it detract from the natural beauty of all this domestic hardwood ??

Buy two flat screens.  The rooms ARE wired for them.  Put a flat screen in each of two rooms.  Add a $$ premium for those two rooms.  Update your website.  See if people want the TV enough to pay for it.

"Oh, YEAH.  Like a test ???"

"Yeah.  A lot like a test !"

Steve L offered to whip up a blender full of Pina Coladas.  It seemed rude to say no, at that point, so ... I didn't.

What about that killer rooftop deck you guys have.  It's a million dollar location, but you're doing NOTHING with it.  I walked up there, snapped a few pics, and walked RIGHT back down ??  Why not put your restaurant seating up there, and turn the (rather silly looking) lobby into a seating area with books and coffee where people could use the WiFI.

Leave a NICE table or two -- smallish -- for breakfast service and/or bad weather.  If the food service goes over well, add a bar and a flat-screen TV to bring in the locals.

But before you spend any serious money, you have to understand your market, what they want, how much they'll spend, and how many locals are looking for a new place to drink.  Will they want beer ?  Blended drinks ?  Cheap food ?  High-end food ?  How much will they spend.

"Test, test, test," I said, and have the ability to modify your website easily and frequently TO test.

This went on a while.  We talked about the Capital Expenditures it would require, and Steve L was getting tense.  Steve R was getting excited.

But I knew why each was feeling why they were.

Steve L had lost just about every cent he had when he got screwed over by his Homeowners' Association, felt he had no choice but to litigate (it all revolved around black mold), and got savagely beaten by the courts.

The real estate guy, and erstwhile entrepreneur, Steve R, on the other hand, still retained a good dose of optimism and enthusiasm for just the sort of project I described.

I mentioned that to them -- that Steve L had "learned" to see doom and gloom, to expect the worst, and to see the potential horrors that lurked behind every dark corner.  He'd LEARNED that -- I added -- when he lost faith that there was any semblance of justice in this world, and that -- if you WERE good, and if you DID good -- good things would happen.

He nearly began weeping.  He simply said ... "You're so right."

But -- me being me -- I asked Steve R if HE had gotten through this life unscathed.

Long story short: ab-so-LUTE-ly not.

Two major crises:

1) He bought a distressed property in downtown Niagara Falls, Canada.  Then, the casino began to buy property blocks away.  The City wanted him to sell, couldn't take the property under Canada's Expropriation laws, but .... started screwing with him, through fallacious Building Code Violation issues.

Now, Steve R went to law school AND had some stones.  He pushed/fought back at every turn, eventually filing a lawsuit against the municipality under several causes of action.

The story is WAY too complex for me to tell, but ... in the end ... the Fire Marshall's spot inspection revealed that a tenant's (in Steve's building) smoke detector lacked a battery.  It was a Chinese restaurant, and the tenant had disabled it, to keep it from going off constantly.

Steve refused to pay the fine.

They jailed him.

He was sentenced to 15 days in a Provincial jail, but ... due to overcrowding ... he had to serve half that time in a maximum security prison, among the murderers, rapists, and other serious offenders.

He was there when a prison riot broke out.  He saw an inmate get violated.

Horrible stories.

For not having a battery in a smoke detector in a commercial property that HE owned, and that the City (family ties to the casino owner/operators) wanted to take.

2) Steve was a successful real estate broker and investor.  He had bought himself a luxury home, out of foreclosure.  It was something like 12,000sf.  Needed work.  He did the work.  Lived there with a girlfriend, and -- at one point -- two contractors and THEIR wives/significant others.

The relationship between Steve and his girlfriend ended, maybe not well.

A few months later, the ex- swore out an affidavit to the Canadian authorities that Steve had a stockpile of automatic weapons in the house.

And then fled to Florida.

Canadian police, the RCMP, and the SWAT team breached his house, used explosives to breach the front door, smashed in dozens of windows to enter, and used a total of 14 flash-bang grenades to neutralize any who might be inside.

They destroyed the house in their efforts to find the weapons cache.  They found nothing.  He was charged with no crime.

They stole the Digital Video Recorder that was attached to the home's security system, and had recorded the entire affair from numerous angles.

But they didn't know that the cameras fed a separate hard drive in a basement computer system.

Steve sued.  The Plaintiffs were six -- Steve + his SO, and the two contractors and THEIR SO's.

The government offered $600,000 in settlement.  Steve wanted to settle, but the other four didn't.

Fast forward: when it came time to take the matter to court, the other four had no funds to pay the Attorney's fees to take it to trial, and Steve -- a lawyer -- wasn't willing to gamble everything HE had (particularly after spending $80,000 to repair the damage that the police had done TO the house) on a trial.

These two men -- nearly the same age, and about the same age as I am -- pretty much fled their North American homelands because they were convinced that the oft-touted "freedom" they had always thought they enjoyed .... was either a myth, or on the rapid decline.

They got my story.  They asked a thousand questions.  They simply knew that I was a club member, and began doing a MUCH better job of giving me The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Belize.

"If you're Spanish is okay, I honestly wouldn't recommend Belize, Neil.  Simply NOT enough bang for the buck, here."

I couldn't agree more.

Years ago, I would have chalked the stories of these two up to pure bull-puckey, or half-truths, at best.

Not anymore.  I know that every single thing they described COULD well be true, just AS they told it.

I've been divorced from "The Just World Hypothesis --" that if you are good, and you do good, good things will happen to you, and that -- if something bad happened to you, it's because you're a bad person.

So have they.

And none of us particularly knows what to do with it.  So we ate Black Angus beef burgers, drank pina coladas, and fended off Harry, the Eclectus Parrot, who wanted to eat everything that WE were eating.


And that was yesterday.

Today, I was determined to hike to Arenal -- the little town that straddles Belize and Guatemala.  It's allegedly charming, about nine miles away, and takes you through some jungle.

Only, I wouldn't do the walk if it's raining.  The roads will wash out.

But it WAS raining, and I DID do the walk.

Got an early start.  Got some liquid (drinkable) yogurts and a few sweet rolls from the grocery, and headed out.

First it drizzled, then it pretty much poured.

Ah, well.  Shorts, synthetic-fiber t-shirt, waterproof hikers, wool socks, and a raincoat that did cover my backpack and could cover me.

It WAS a beautiful walk.  The road DID get pretty muddy.  It was through the jungle, and up and down hills.  What amazing country, around here.

Since it was pouring in Arenal, I saw few people.  Those that I did see mostly peered out at me from inside their homes.  What I DID encounter, up close and personal, though, were quite a few horses, ducks, chickens, roosters, and turkeys -- and the occasional pig and/or piglet -- roaming the streets.

But the rain was fierce.  No photo ops.

I found the famous swinging bridge that -- while the town IS alleged to straddle the Guatemala/Belize border -- puts you SERIOUSLY into Guatemala, when you walk across it -- taking your life into your own hands.  It is NOT in very good shape :-)

So ... having spent only about 20 minutes IN Arenal, I saw the bridge and hop-scotched my way across the missing boards, to the other side.  Arranged my raincoat as a bit of a shelter, and snapped just a couple of pics.

I started walking north, toward the border town of Melchor de Menchos (Spanish for ... Boy ?  Is you nuts ???), but the hills were getting steeper, and the traction was fast disappearing.  Mud-skiing describes it pretty well.

The remnants of some sort of old Japanese pickup were bouncing buy, and the kid offered me a (paid) ride to the border.  For the record, accepting this ride was NOT admitting defeat.  the truck was wet and muddy, too, and had to struggle occasionally for traction, JUST as I did :-)

But we got to town.

Still raining.  Blah !

I snapped a few pics of Melchor, walked around just stuffing my face with those sweet rolls like I'd been starving for weeks, drank another yogurt, and enjoyed being rather obviously NOT one of the locals for a while.

It's a border town.  MANY more shops than Benque.  Much larger population.  Very Guatemalan.  Felt quite safe and lively.

Now, it's time to see if I can get back into Belize the legal way: at the border crossing.

But -- legally -- I'd never LEFT Belize.  I had no exit stamp in my passport.

I lined up for Immigration.  I told my story.

Wait: WHERE are you actually staying ?

WHERE did you cross ??

WHY don't you have a stamp in your passport ?

HOW LONG have you been gone ??

WHY didn't you stop at Immigration, at Arenal (because there isn't such a thing....) ?

You have to love Belize.  Eventually, she through her hands up, handed me back my passport, and waved me through.

I don't think a lot of people make this trip -- particularly on foot.

I walked back to the hotel, got out of the wet clothes, and laid down.  Nap.  Big ol' nap.

I probably walked for the better part of four hours -- maybe 12 or 14 miles -- but in pretty lousy conditions.

But when you're wet, you're just wet.

And it wasn't cold.

So ... for the pics, from today and yesterday ... with annotations best I can manage.......

The view from the highest point in Benque

The view OF Xuantunich, FROM the highest point in Benque

I finally got to see The House.  I hear it's 40,000sf ... or something

Been closed a while.  Million dollar view.  $1.7 Million price tag, if you should want to buy it

But I think it needs some work

Frogs ... have risky lives, here -- even big ones !

The famous church, in Benque ... whatever it's called

Oh, yeah.  That :-)

The border crossing, from Belize side, TO Guatemala.  Didn't go, yesterday 

The duty-free

THIRD World problems: human trafficking

Into San Jose Succotz

Stacked and stickered.  This is how we do it, People !

Jinx, Boys.  It's the cops !

E-mail really HAS put a damper on snail mail, hasn't it ?

Today.  The Guatemalan side of the swing bridge

Dirty clothes just don't wash themselves.  DAMHIKT !

Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala ... from the POV of an illegal alien -- ME !

Friday, June 14, 2013

Benque Viejo del Carmen, and my hotel

Caught an early bus for Benque, this morning.  Chatted with an Arizona lady (from Flagstaff, went to school at ASU.  Doing NGO work in Guatemala.  Traveled a fair bit.  Lived in Costa Rica for a month.  Asked her to get in touch with Frances, since she feels qualified to teach sustainable agriculture).

Got dropped in Benque, and humped all my luggage to the hotel.  Dropped everything, splashed water on my face, and spent most of the day walking.  Pics below.

Have a 7pm deep tissue massage scheduled, in their "Mayan Spa."

Met Harry, the Eclectus Parrot, who lives here, and -- at 17 y/o -- is the baby of Steve, a guy from Hollywood who says he fled the States, despite a successful acting career, when "the US turned into a Nazi regime."

Uh.  Okay.

Harry allegedly speaks 2000 words.  I haven't head him talk yet, but he's awfully cute :-)  I'll get his pic, and or a picture with him and me, another day.

Interesting town.  Very quiet.  Got a GREAT view of that McMansion (allegedly (now) owned by a drug dealer).  Visible from all parts of town.

Looks like good Chinese food, here.  I'll be trying it.

I can walk to the Guatemalan border, and may do so, tomorrow, just to see the border town.

Gotta' rest, though.  Blazing hot, here, too.


Nice house, Benque style !

Fred Sanford on two wheels

There it is again !

Wood shop !

Almost like an entertainment center

They were (power) planing ... big time.  I loved the sound !

Oh, he's a lumberjack and he's okay.....

The river outside of my hotel veranda

Another hand-cranked ferry

Rooftop view pics

Okay.  I'm obsessed.  But look at that thing !

My hallway to my room

One wall of my room

Another wall of my room

My ceiling

Outside my door

The veranda

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