"Women are the guardians of continuity. If the hearth moves, they move with it. Remember, it is the gypsy women who keep their men on the road."

~"Boomerang Love," Jimmy Buffett

4,000 Years of Civilization in a 40 Year-old Village

January 26, 2010

The dirt road that separates the Nu'uk Cheil Cottages and the Jaguar Preserve is only 10 kilometers, but due to bumpy terrain and unpredictable roadblocks, the ride usually takes 20 minutes each way. During this time, our Mayan guide Julio Saqui kept us entertained with stories about how the area had grown over the last several decades. He told us about Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, the famous environmentalist who established the world's first jaguar sanctuary here in the Stann Creek district. He told us about the British knight who taught English in his Dangriga high school, and helped him master his now impeccable English. He told us about his brother Ernesto, an accomplished conservationist recognized by the Audubon Society and a prominent member of the village council. Ever the modest and humble guide, it took us a while to finally learn anything about Julio himself.

He revealed to us that his long-time dream was to open a Mayan Culture Museum, and after many years of playing with the idea, he finally came up with a working prototype. Before he finally dropped us off at the doorstep of our hotel, he sheepishly asked whether we might be interested in seeing it before our tour the next morning. It's official opening would not be for another few weeks, so we would be getting a “sneak peek.” Deeply moved and honored that he was willing to share such a personal project with us, we accepted.

When we first arrived at the Maya Village Center, we walked past a thatched house on the way to our hotel. It was adjacent to Julio's tour office, so we assumed it must have been his home. Turns out, it was the actual museum. To better demonstrate the Mayan lifestyle, he had recreated a Mayan-styled house, complete with all the goodies you would find inside. As far as he knew, this full-sized model of the Mayan household was the first of its kind. While the lodgings may at first sight seem sparse and modest, a closer inspection (and a little more education) would reflect an economy of style that was beautiful, elegant, resourceful, and richly immersed in a deep tradition.

From top to bottom, the entire construction was handmade from the surrounding forest, whether it was the thatched-leaf roof bound together by dried vines to the woven hammock which swung in the common area. The real treasures, however, were the small details- the homemade broom which sat by the door, the various gourds and sticks which functioned as cooking utensils, even the simple artwork that decorated the walls. At one point we sat down at a table which turned out to be the stump of a mahogany tree – loggers had cannibalized the tree for lumber, but left behind a stump, which Julio was able to use. What was truly remarkable was that the entire home was completely functional in its current state. If he were to have lit the hearth, a typical household could have begun its daily routine with very little trouble. Nothing to move-in or “turn-on” - no electricity, no refrigeration, no running water. Every challenge we could fathom, this house came fully loaded. Even more fascinating, having lived with his British teacher and experiencing the so-called “privileged life,” Julio confessed to us that he still preferred the comfort of a hammock to a bed, and cooking from scratch everyday rather than re-heating food that was prepared before. That's no joke, as we learned that harvesting rice from the chaff, grinding corn for tortillas, and drying out coffee beans were all long, tedious processes. That morning, his wife had generously woken up before sunrise to make us some tasty, homemade chicken burritos for lunch. While it's a lifestyle I don't necessarily envy, it's one that I can't help but marvel at. The values of wasting nothing and using everything, the respect for nature, and perhaps most of all, the undeniable dignity and quiet satisfaction that stems from difficult, often thankless work – things which I feel us “first-worlders” sometimes lose sight of. As one of my friends in Honduras described it, “It's like camping all the time!”

The presentation came full circle, as it made the actual trek through the rainforest all the more meaningful. Now whenever he pointed out a particular species of tree or plant, we could visualize the final product and truly appreciate the immense amount of work that went into making it. If you ever have the opportunity to take an interpretive nature tour with a native guide, take advantage of it. Sure, you can follow the trails on your own and admire the prettiness of all the leaves and flowers, but it's a completely different perspective to experience the forest as the source of somebody's entire livelihood. We got to play with the sap from a rubber tree, smell wild vanilla bean, taste wild plums and nuts, and even learned about medicinal plants which are used as poison ivy treatment, breath freshener, or even birth control. (I'm not sure when I'll necessarily be putting any of this knowledge to practice, but I figure that it doesn't hurt to know).

Between staying in a family-owned cottage and hiking through an immaculately maintained nature preserve, I was impressed with how the entire town came together not only to protect their strong traditions, but to share them with others. I was particularly moved by Julio's Maya Culture Museum, a labor of love and a level of passion we should all strive for. When it comes to locally-owned and operated businesses, you just want to see them succeed. Hopefully, more travelers in Belize will take a chance and visit this truly unique living community – scorpions and all.

A typical Mayan living room/bedroom

The various stages of making coffee

Zack, Sophia, and our Mayan guide Julio

Unexpected Visitor: Roughing it Maya Style

January 25, 2010

On the crowded Southbound bus, we were the only two people who requested a stop at the Maya Center Village. As it turns out, we were the only two people who were visiting the entire town. That suited us just fine – after three days of lounging on the beach, we had wanted an intrepid leg of the trip to improve our travel street cred. Our plan? To march through the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. Twice. Once during the day, and again at night, when a different set of crawlies and beasties come out. Because we were arriving in the afternoon, we actually did the evening tour first.

With nothing but our flashlights and our Mopan Mayan guide, we spent two hours hiking through the trail. We crept in silence, straining to listen for the slightest movements –a rustling in the bushes, the whisper of the tree branches above. Although we could not see much, there was ample evidence that we were not alone in the forest. Some of the interesting things we lucky enough to catch were some nocturnal pigeons (just as dumb as their circadian brethren), a kinkajou leaping through the treetops, a dizzying queue of leafcutter ants which stretched for several meters, leftover nutshells from wild boars, and the proverbial jackpot: a fresh pair of jaguar paw prints from an adult female and her young cub. At one point during our walk, our fearless guide suddenly slammed his palm onto a log. He emerged with a coral snake slithering in his hands - yes, a “red and yellow, kill a fellow” snake. That's a level of badassery that deserves its own special category. By the time we returned to our hotel room, we were feeling pretty pumped up. That is, until we noticed an unexpected visitor in our room:

It's one thing to pay to see potentially dangerous animals in their natural habitat, it's another thing entirely to see one suspended inches above where you planned to sleep. Our immediate feelings were a healthy level of shock, followed by a less natural feeling of bemusement. After assessing the situation, Zack ripped off his boot and heaved it at the wall, knocking most of the scorpion off the wall behind the bed (I say “most of,” because various parts of it were still stuck... I leave that to your imagination). We hadn't had 30 seconds to catch our breath when a tail-less scorpion emerged from under the bed, scurrying wildly along the floor. Wide-eyed, I screamed, “IT'S NOT DEAD! IT'S NOT DEAD!” It was headed directly towards me, so I was yelling more to myself than anything. Since I was perched over the bed, I had the most optimal angle. Lifting my hiking boot into the air, I waited until it skittered directly underneath its sole and let gravity do its work. There was a satisfying thud and subsequent crunch. Direct hit. Tentatively I lifted my boot, only to find the thing feebly skittering around, refusing to die. Stubborn bastard. By that point, Zack had retrieved his boot from behind the bed and put an end to it once and for all. My hero.

Needless to say, that night we took the extra time to hang the mosquito net, AKA the “scorpion guard.” Additionally, we safeguarded ourselves by zipping up all our luggage, putting our shoes in bags, etc - not that it would have done much good, considering these scorpions seemed to have Wolverine-level healing powers.

The next morning, we casually mentioned to the owner that a large scorpion had somehow made it into our room. Unfazed, she shrugged and smiled. “It would hurt you, but it wouldn't kill you.” She seemed completely unperturbed by the incident, and it probably at that exact moment that we had our Avatar “You're not in Kansas anymore” moment. At any reputable hotel or guesthouse in the US, a poisonous pest in the room would have triggered a wave of obsequious apologies directly from the manager, empty promises of immediate action, comp'd rooms, free breakfasts, a voucher for a future stay – just some good, old-fashioned American ass-kissing. Here, apparently anything less than death is not a cause for immediate concern. Oddly enough, that experience only added to our stay. It was terrifying, but also kind of charming. Welcome to Belize.

Borrowed Time: Racing the Sun in Caye Caulker

January 23, 2010

In 1961 Hurricane Hattie ravaged the coast of Belize, battering the reefs and actually cracking the island of Caye Caulker in two. When we were returning from our snorkel tour, however, the rift now known as the “Split” served only to frame a sunset that was already made-for-postcard beautiful: a kitesurfer gliding over the water, the dark silhouette of his parachute bathed in the glorious backdrop of a Caribbean sunset. Breaking the silence, a crewmember said “It is okay to shed a tear.”

Minutes beforehand, he and the captain had anchored the Ragga King so we could catch the sunset before finally heading back to the docks. This was to be the capstone to a day full of activity, amazing wildlife, great company, and generous amounts of potent rum punch.

The schedule consisted of three snorkel stops, each exponentially more impressive than the last. The Coral Gardens in the Caye Caulker Reserve was our first site. Plagued by unregulated overfishing, this location served little purpose besides getting landlubbers acquainted to kicking with fins and breathing through a snorkel. While the Caye Caulker Reserves are right off the shore, Hol Chan takes longer to get to, and as a protected reserve, it only allows visitors to enter with a designated guide. For this reason that the tour is only offered as a full-day package. It is well worth the extra time and money – for an extra $15, we had the chance to swim amongst a swarm of nurse sharks and stingrays, watch the guide coax a massive grouper straight into his arms, free dive under a cove where there were a nest of parrot fish attempting to hide from us, and have green turtles flip around our feet. Incidentally, they must be some of the happiest creatures on the planet, along with puppies, dolphins, and otters. (If you're wishing that we had an underwater camera to capture all this, think about how we must feel).

When we climbed aboard from the last stop, ecstatic about all we had seen, the disappointing realization sunk in that we had done our last swim and had to begin the long haul back to shore. Fortunately for us, the crew at Ragamuffin Tours was adept at keeping us distracted in the interim. To begin, they are one of the few tour companies that uses a sailboat. One can forgive the slower pace when you compare the relaxing rhythm of the wind beating against the massive canvas tarps to the boat mechanical sputtering of a boat motor. We were also accompanied by the singular sounds of Caribbean music. Under normal circumstances, I believe most of us could agree that reggae music can be kind of... well... annoying. That predisposition dissolves once you're actually at an island location. None of us seemed to mind that we had listened to what may have been the entire Bob Marley discography. Twice. This may also have to do with the 10 gallons of rum punch they made-- the allegedly “small refreshments” promised in the brochure. There was a 17-year who couldn't partake in libations, so the captain gave her the distinct privilege of steering the boat. This privilege was stricken when he finally realized she had been driving us even further away from our destination, but by that point any lingering hints of American urgency or scheduling had long fled. We were on island time.

It's for this reason that there were no complaints about an unexpected stops or delays. Which brings us back to the beginning – a completely impromptu sunset tour. As we all know, the sun always sets a lot faster when it is being watched. Giddy with a combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and inebriation, we shared a quick, fleeting moment of hazy appreciation. Then, rather unceremoniously, one of the crew members wrapped his arms around Zack and forced both of them into ocean. Laughing hysterically, we all joined him in the warm water – finding yet another excuse to keep the day going.

Intro Part II: The Method

Before we plunge into my wild adventures, a little bit of housekeeping. Being the Type A overachieving perfectionist that I am, I did quite a bit of research and preparation before launching this blog. Sure I wanted it to be pretty and tricked out with neat gadgets, but ultimately it's going to be content-driven. My primary goal is to bring to life some of my most memorable travel strories. My ulterior motive (there always is one) is to start developing a portfolio, because if things go well, I may be able to explore travel writing on a more professional level. Someday, if I do become a well-respected, successful and pre-eminent travel writer, I thought it might be important to give credit to the reference materials I used to guide me:

Google Blogger For Dummies, Susan Gunelius – My manual for the actual logistics and tools for pimping out the layout and format of the blog

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging – A surprisingly pleasurably read which features fascinating case studies. From Obama's masterfully crafted '08 presidential campaign to Perez Hilton's flame war with a California pageant queen, this book impressed upon me the value and importance of finding my own unique voice amid a noisy blogosphere. Also, its unabashed jibes at the right-wing (they single-handedly attribute Senator Trent Lott's resignation to active bloggers), while gratuitous, often made me smile.

Who Let the Blogs Out?: A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs, Biz Stone – A very accessible introduction into the conventions of blogging etiquette and culture. Refreshingly free of jargon and exclusive tech-speak, it's a great introduction to the blogging culture for novices.

Travel Writing, L. Peat O'Neill – This manual was primarily geared for writers with the intent to submit their articles for publication, but it's supposedly the holy [religious text of choice] for travel writers. The most important (and challenging) lesson I took away from this book was that the skilled travel writer does not rely on first person perspective to drive the narrative. When traveling, it is easy to get caught up in the rather self-important assumption that the world is dying to hear a point-by-point narration of our every activity: I am reminded of the self-indulgent Xangas and Livejournals we all so meticulously kept in high school, and it makes me cringe. This book reminded me that it's not all about me- I'm just an observer who was lucky enough to be there.

Tales from Margaritaville – Similar to Travel Writing, I am using this book as a model for great story-telling. I am relying on Jimmy to keep me grounded and focused on my objectives (you can see more details on finding Margaritaville in my prior post). Pretty much, I want to avoid the self-fellation which is so common from those who fancy themselves consummate travelers. You know the type – the dreadlocked nomads who claim to be pre-eminent experts in “culture” because they have a few more stamps in their passports and a distaste for showering. This book serves as a poignant reminder that there are colorful characters with meaningful, entertaining stories everywhere. You just have to find them.

Finally, the last item has to do with how I want this blog to be. It's nice to have a venue for expressing myself, but my hope is that this blog provides something of value to the audience (that's you guys). I want it to be a conversation, so please feel free to leave feedback in the form of questions, comments, and even criticism (as it will help me improve my writing). I spend a lot of time sifting through my journal for subjects which I think are most interesting, but I could be completely off base. If there are certain topics you are interested in, something you're curious about, please let me know so I don't waste my time investigating the migration patterns of blind Andean llamas. Other than that, thanks for coming on this ride with me, and I hope we have many more adventures together!

Intro Part I: Why Margaritaville?

For the longest time, the word “Margaritaville” held no meaning for me other than a glorified blender that specialized in mixing frozen cocktails. That changed last Christmas day, when I bounded down the stairs to find a copy of Tales from Margaritaville waiting in my stocking. Somehow Santa always seems to know what I need, even when I don't necessarily know it myself.

He knew that in early 2010, I would quit my job of 2.5 years in Austin, Texas to embark on a new chapter of my life. He knew that I would then spend a whirlwind three weeks backpacking through Central America, from Belize to Honduras. And he knew that in March, I would make my biggest move yet to Argentina, where I would spend the rest of the year. Beyond that? The timeframe is a bit hazy, but I think we both know that it will involve even more wandering (in both the literal and figurative sense).

The purpose of this blog is to share some of my memorable moments and experiences. In documenting this journey, I can think of no better inspiration than this collection of “restless dreamers, wild wanderers, and pure gypsy souls.” It is a motley crew of characters: Tully Mars, the Montana cowboy who yearns to smell the ocean; Romeo Fleming, the jet-setting bestseller who ends up coaching a high school football team in Heatwave, Alabama; at some point, we are joined by our storyteller himself. The recurring theme is the quest, that ongoing search for life's greatest intangibles (meaning, happiness, success, redemption, love...) that ultimately leads one to Margaritaville.

So where exactly is Margaritaville?

“It appears at different locations on the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico- west of Tortuga, south of Ship Island, or the middle of Perdido Bay. Somewhere and everywhere, Margaritaville has its origins.”
Hmm, a floating island paradise with hazy coordinates and seemingly supernatural properties? It sounds like a new wave of Lost conspiracy theories waiting to hit the online message boards. But it is also the inspiration for me to create this blog. What struck me most about the book was that the adventures were not in exotic locations, but rather in each character's own folk-colored backyard. It's the idea that shrimp-trawling in Key West or eating gumbo in the French Quarter can be just as glamorous and invigorating as ATVing through Mayan ruins or making love in the middle of a hurricane. It's the human element - that one can share an instantaneous, visceral connection with the waitress who served you grits in a Arkansas diner or the good-looking piano player who plays jazz at the local bistro (or in the case of Tully Mars, your pet horse!).

It is in this spirit that I hope to capture the beauty and the extraordinary in daily life. To encounter the quirky characters who so completely embody the color of a place. By immersing ourselves in these simple pleasures, perhaps we will be lucky enough to stumble upon that special, magical place between sobriety and the sublime. So in the words of my new hero Jimmy, I extend an invitation:

“So join me, if you will, on the real and unreal voyages to and from Margaritaville, wherever the hell that is.”