Monday, April 28, 2014

A Visit to Iximche

Last Saturday, I visited my first Mayan ruin site in Guatemala.  A group of 18 of us from school embarked at 7:30am to go to the Iximche ruins in Tecpan.  I’ve been to Maya sites before, in Mexico—Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum—but this was my first trip in Guatemala. 

The day was beautiful, the ruin site surrounded by trees and a cool breeze.  We had a great guide named Alexis, who had good English, but I think once he found out Kelly and Jane have good Spanish, he relaxed and spoke more Spanish, letting them translate more than he would have had to.  But that’s just my opinion. 

Iximche, Tecpan, Guatemala

Alexis had some very interesting bits to share about the city and its customs. 

The first thing I learned: the Maya made their steps tall and narrow so that one would be forced to go up them sideways, ensuring that one’s back was never turned to the sun located behind the steps.  (This made me think back to the many, many tall steps along the Inca trail and wonder if the Incas had similar ingenuity in mind). 

We saw the ball court, and learned the size of the ball, that the game there was played by bouncing the ball off of the hip and knees only, and that the game was not used, as in other places, to decide upon a sacrificial victim, but as a game for the ruling class to play.  As Alexis told us, at Iximche, “They killed their enemies, not their own people.”  Must have been downright progressive.

The ball would have been about this big... and would have
weighed about 5-8lbs. 

We were shown how the 4 plazas (one for each of 4 families) were laid out and we tried to imagine what the area would have looked like with 75 people living in each plaza.  At the end of the tour, we checked out the relief map in the museum and got a better feel for how the place would have looked with the buildings’ original adobe walls and thatch roofs.  (All that is left now are the stone foundations). 

Kelly translating Alexis's explanation for us.

Relief map! 

The tour ended at the fourth plaza, where a Maya spiritual ritual was taking place.  Alexis explained to us what was going on in hushed tones, but I’ve forgotten most of that part of the tour.  Just watching the ritual without any understanding was cool enough.

Even so, I left the day feeling like I’d learned something, seen a beautiful new part of Guatemala, and had spent the day with great people.  Really, what more could you ask of a Saturday? 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Seven Days Sailing on Las Sirenas

I have a love/hate relationship with the ocean.  Not having grown up near the sea, the size and power of it intimidate and frighten me sometimes.  Especially when I swim in the ocean, I fear for dangerous currents, monster waves, the way the weather can change in an instant, and being caught and tumbled and breathing in salt water and sputtering and coughing and being hit with another wave in the process. (As you may have guessed, it’s happened a time or two).  Surfing and diving scare me, quite honestly.

But I also love the ocean.  I love being on boats, and waves can mesmerize me for hours.  It fascinates me the way the light plays off the waves at certain times of the day--especially that hour right before sunset when everything looks golden, and during sunset when the surface of the water turns pink or orange with the setting of the sun.

So I knew I’d find enjoyment in the trip we booked for spring break: 7 days on a 46’ sailboat named Las Sirenas. 

Neither of these are Las Sirenas...I was on our boat when I took this.

In total, there were 14 of us on the sailboat, packed in like sardines, but still comfortable.  Seven of us were coming together from the city, and on the boat we met an Australian couple and a mom and son from Australia as well.  We also had three crew members: Captain Raul, a sailor named Zaqueo, and a cook named Ariel. 

Michelle and I had each booked a single cabin on the boat, while Nick and Chelsea shared a double, as did Nadine and Tony.  Jen had booked a hammock at the front of the boat.  Why our single cabins were the most expensive rooms on the boat is beyond me, as we slept in the smallest, most cramped areas.  I could only sit up straight when my hatch was open, and the cabin tapered down to about 6” wide where my feet lay.  There was only one shelf, not large enough for me to put my backpack on comfortably, so I kept that in the group storage room.  Thankfully, there was a fan in the cabin, and that kept it comfortable at night; I never had too much trouble sleeping at night.

My cabin before I put any of my things
in it

Michelle's cabin--several days into the trip

We boarded the boat on Sunday afternoon and spent an uneventful few hours sailing down the Rio Dulce, tacking back and forth.  We stopped for the night docked outside of a restaurant, and then next morning we started sailing through the canyon towards Livingston at 6am. Watching the sunrise over the canyon walls was breathtakingly beautiful.


After a few hours in Livingston to shop, explore, and buy snacks for the week, we entered the Caribbean Sea and began the 7 hour trip to the Belize Barrier Reef.  That day, I spent long hours perched at the front of the boat watching the waves and noting as the water around us turned a deeper shade of blue.  At one point, I was near the rear of the boat and we heard someone cry, “We’ve got dolphins!” 

I should note--before leaving on this trip, my one hope for it was that I would see a dolphin in the wild.  My heart was set on it.

We all rushed to the front of the boat, and there they were--a whole school of them, at least 10 if not more, swimming along with our boat.  Las Sirenas is a catamaran with 2 hammocks over the front where you can look down and see the water directly below.  The dolphins swam there, right under our hammocks and in front of the boat.  All of us crowded around and watched them as they kept pace with us.  Nadine even reached down through the hammock and touched one as it jumped up for air!!  It’s an experience I will remember all my life.

Watching the dolphins

In the afternoon, the waves got a bit bigger, and Zaqueo passed out life jackets and asked us all to put them on--just as a precaution.  Nadine and Michelle started feeling seasick as our boat charged the waves, but surprisingly I did not.  I did, however, get saltwater in my eye in the continuous splashing and kept squeezing that eye shut to make it feel better.  I took a nap for an hour or so, and when I woke up, Nadine and Michelle were feeling better (thanks to some Bonine--motion sickness medication--they’d taken), and we were close to our destination for the night. 

I think that night we were all simply ready to be done sailing for a while, and it didn’t help much that it was a windy night and the boat kept rocking with the choppy water, even when docked. 

The next morning though, we woke to calm waters and a breakfast of pancakes with bananas, chocolate sauce, and peanut butter.  Ending a meal with a peanut butter and honey sandwich quickly became a ritual on the trip, and over the course of the week, the 11 of us went through almost 2 full 2.5lb jars of peanut butter and countless loaves of bread.  What the crew must have thought of us…

We went snorkeling for an hour or so (didn’t see all that much), and then left for our next destination.  We moored off the coast of 2 tiny islands.  On one was a dive school where several people checked if they could get in to dive (no luck).  There were also several good snorkeling spots around the islands.  We ended up staying near the two islands longer than anticipated.  The plan was to arrive around noon on the first day and leave around noon the next day...but on Tuesday morning when we woke up, the seas were choppy and our captain knew that the waves on the open water we’d have to traverse to get to the best reef would be too we waited until Thursday morning to move on.  Consequently, we really explored the reefs around the islands. 

Wednesday morning, Nick and Chelsea and I ventured to the far side of the island (the others had gone on Tuesday afternoon while Chels and I had chosen to relax on the boat), and I was really impressed by the reef there.  Nick spotted a huge ray burrowing in the sand, and I saw a lionfish (and kept my distance).  Then on Wednesday afternoon we all went along a canyon and had more spectacular views.  I’ve never seen so much colorful coral through crystal clear water.

Awesome photo of a lobster Michelle took

After snorkeling a while, we decided we were ready to head back to the boat.  Since Zaqueo hadn’t come back with the dinghy yet, we started swimming in the direction of the boat on our own. 
And of course, the idiot that I am, I completely forgot that on the way out, we’d had to take a precise route and avoid a very shallow section of the reef.  I oriented myself towards the boat, taking the shortest path, and let the current carry me quickly in the direction I wanted to go.  The reef got more and more shallow, and I tried to find the deepest sections to avoid scraping the bottom.  (I still didn’t remember the extremely shallow patch).  Eventually, though, the water was only about six inches deep, and my thigh scraped coral and drew blood.  I stood up in the ankle-deep water, flipper-walked back until it was deep enough to swim again, and got back to the deeper section.  My leg didn’t hurt badly, but it did drip quite a bit of blood until Zaqueo cleaned me up and put on bandaids back on the boat. wouldn’t be a trip if I didn’t injure myself somehow, right?

ohhh band-aids...
One great thing about our location at the two islands was that when the crew would clean the fresh fish they’d caught and throw the guts off the back of the boat, rays of all types and nurse sharks would come to feed.  Being that those creatures are pretty harmless, several of the people in our group had awesome experiences swimming with the massive creatures.  One night an eagle ray came and swam slow laps back and forth in front of our boat, right at sunset.  It was one of the most majestic things I have witnessed, and we lined up at the side of the deck just watching it. 

On Thursday, we were sailing before anyone other than Jen (who had to vacate her hammock when the crew got up each morning...and always wakes early anyway) was out of bed.  We arrived at our last spot--a wide reef with no islands within swimming distance--by mid-morning and took the dinghy out to snorkel.  Captain Raul had saved the best for last, and we spent almost two full hours in the water marveling at the multi-colored coral and multitude of fishes.  I wish I’d had an underwater camera to capture how breath-taking the underwater world was.  It was the first time in my life I’ve experienced snorkeling that measures up to all those beautiful pictures you see of the reefs.  I’ve never seen coral in so many different colors and shapes, and so many cool fish as well!

We spent that afternoon relaxing, reading, testing out the paddle boards, and marveling at the fish that Zaqueo and Raul kept bringing back from their spear fishing excursions.  Nick and Tony helped Raul bring in enough lobster for all of us to have our own lobster tail that night--the most extravagant meal that Ariel (our cook) prepared on the entire trip. 
Nick brought back a starfish and a conch!
(We threw the starfish back eventually).

Captain taking out a conch from one
Nick brought back

Jen and Chelsea helped gut the fish

That night after dinner, we stayed up, waiting for dessert (chocolate cake that evening) and playing games, as had slowly become our ritual.  We played lots of yahtzee, as well as party games such as “Family Ties” which had us guessing who’d responded with what answer and “3-2-1” which combined Catch Phrase and Charades.  Our groups of 7, 2, and 2 people merged throughout the week in to one cohesive group of 11 comrades as we laughed into the darkness.  We stayed up later and later as the week went on, though never much past 10pm, as getting up at 6 and swimming all day long tires one out.

An afternoon game of dice

Early bedtimes were fine, of course, although on Monday night we all wanted to stay awake until midnight in order to see the full lunar eclipse that turned the moon into a glowing red orb.  Although we retired early, though, most of us awoke during the night and poked our heads out, able to take in the phenomenon and enjoy it. 

Friday, we left the reef early in order to make it back to Livingston by mid-afternoon.  The day was sweltering, and there was almost no breeze, forcing the crew to use the boat’s motor and drop the sail for much of the day.  By the time we got to Livingston, we eagerly used our 30 minutes to dash into town for ice cream and come back to the boat.

Two hours later, we reached freshwater, and Raul allowed us 30 minutes to stop and swim.  After almost a week of swimming in saltwater and bathing with saltwater, that first plunge into the Rio Dulce had me thinking the river’s name couldn’t be more perfect; the water that filled my mouth tasted like the sweetest in the world.  After repeatedly jumping in, we all lathered up with soap and shampoo and eagerly jumped back into the river to rinse off with freshwater for the first time in days.  Feeling truly clean never felt so good!

That night, we sailed in the darkness, reaching Rio Dulce around 8pm.  It was a beautiful experience floating down the river, white sail billowing in the moonlight, the only lights the red and green bulbs on either side of the boat and the white bulb on the mast to let other vessels know where we were.  That night, Tony taught Ariel, the cook, how to beer batter fish, and we enjoyed a late dinner of fish and pico de gallo.  The next morning, we spent a few more hours swimming and playing in the river, and then it was back to the real world once again. 

This trip was not one I maybe would have chosen for myself originally,  but I’m so glad we did it.  It was an experience unlike any I’ve had so far, and so even though I didn’t really “see Belize” or have crazy active adventures climbing things, I do have great memories that will last me the rest of my life! 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Polo, Anyone?

A few weeks ago, one of my students came in with a cast on his wrist.  When Carrie asked him what he’d done, he explained he was injured playing polo.  “Polo?!  Like on horses?” she’d asked him.  He said yes, and she told him to let her know when the next match was, and we’d come.  So low and behold, he let her know, and we came.

Saturday morning Carrie and I left the city, following the directions we had from the student’s parent. 

Well…I should backtrack.  It was a bit more of an adventure than that.  It always is. 
We went to start my car, and it was dead.  Luckily, as this has happened before, I am now the proud owner of jumper cables, so we easily started the car and got on our way.  After driving about 20 minutes, we stopped for coffee and breakfast.  Upon leaving, my car wouldn’t start again.  We went back into Starbucks and fumbled completely over the words in Spanish to communicate “My car battery is dead.”  Thankfully, one of the workers spoke English and jumped into the conversation, then offered to bring her car over to help us out.  Once again, it started easily after the jump, and we were on our way.

The rest of the trip to the match was more or less uneventful.  We missed our turn off of the main highway, but realized it immediately and didn’t have to go far before we could turn around.  We had to detour around a parade route in a small town, but we figured it out.  We thought we might be lost after that, but after calling our student’s mom, realized we just had a bit farther to go. 

We made it to the polo fields by about 11:20—which was of course 20 minutes after the match had started.  That would have been okay…except polo is played in four seven-minute “checkers,” so the game was more than half over already.  Still, we got to see our student play for a few minutes before the game ended.  We also met several American polo parents who were there with their sons for the tournament (there were also boys from Mexico and Honduras…and maybe Argentina?).  They were very social and friendly and opened our eyes to the world of polo (and explained the rules to us) as we watched the next game. 

Our student's game in progress when we arrived 

It turns out polo is really fun to watch.  It’s fast paced and easy to follow, and the boys’ skill with the horses is impressive (especially to a girl like me with zero horse sense).  We learned a bit about the game too.  There are 4 checkers, and after each 7 minutes, the horses are changed out to rest.  Professional players do this even more often; a pro may show up to a match with 12 horses for one game.  Obviously this contributes to making polo a very, very expensive sport.  For this tournament, the horses were loaned to the boys—so none of the international families had brought their own horses with them (but believe me, they had money). 

Carrie and I felt a little bit out of place…as if we’d been transported to another world.  Who would have thought this polo subculture existed right under our noses?  Still, the people we met were gracious and welcoming, and when they invited us to stay for the luncheon after the tournament, we accepted. 

It was nearly 4:00pm when we left.  We made our departure at the same time as the mother of another of Carrie’s old students, and as she was headed to Lake Amatitlan, which neither Carrie nor I had ever been to, she let us follow her there so that we could snap a few photos of the beautiful lake before returning to the city for the evening.

Saturday was an adventure.  It took me to a place I had never visited (and otherwise probably never would) and opened my eyes to a sport and a culture I had no knowledge of.  I’m so glad we accepted the invitation and experienced the day!