Backpacking Bonus 4: Spice Up Your Life

Even though reading the title of this post may have gotten you singing along in your head with the Spice Girls–“People of the world, spice up your life! Every boy and every girl, spice up your life! Aawww–yeah!!”–this chapter is actually all about the FOOD and FLAVORS of Thailand. (Ok…maybe it was just me who had the Spice Girls earworm.) While this post is chock-full of food photos, I will elaborate in writing on some of the dishes, customs, and concepts that have influenced Thai culture and have made Thailand a culinary marvel of the world.

When I first discovered Thai restaurants in the United States, I wasn’t really sure how or what to order, but it quickly became a favorite type of cuisine because everything I tasted was so fresh, healthy, and delicious. Over the centuries, Thailand chefs, who could easily be referred to as culinary artists, have mastered the integration of the five taste bud zingers–spicy, savory, salty, sweet, and sour–into practically every dish. Each bite proffers an explosion of flavor in your mouth, earning Thailand a well-deserved reputation that has spread far and wide.

Meals and Table Preparation

As far as breakfast, lunch, and dinner go, I wouldn’t say that there are any specific dishes for a certain time of day as I have seen all food served and available all day long. Breakfast can be based around eggs and toast or it can be simply fresh fruit and a coffee or tea. I have seen omelets, smoothies, pancakes, bacon, and noodle dishes–but again, any of this is available throughout the day. For heavier meals during the rest of the day, the main dish is typically served with a noodle base or rice on the side. (The noodles and rice also help curb the spiciness of some dishes.)

Table settings and manners are simple. All tables usually have a canister of toothpicks and small, less-than-paper-thin napkins (or a roll of toilet paper used in place of napkins). That’s about it. Chopsticks are the main utensil used, although forks and spoons are becoming more common. If a meal has any kind of soup or liquid involved, a ladle-like spoon will be served with it. Sometimes condiments such as chili sauce, soy sauce, salt, and sweet red sauce will be served automatically, but usually they are available by request. In most places, people sit at regular tables and chairs to eat, but in a few places, I have seen that people remove their shoes, then sit around tables that are low to the ground on mats or cushions on the floor to enjoy their meal.

This family shares mealtime around a small table close to the floor. This photo was actually taken in a village in Laos (not Thailand), but it is the perfect example so I had to include it.

This family shares mealtime around a small table close to the floor. This photo was actually taken in a village in Laos (not Thailand), but it is the perfect example so I had to include it.

Fruits, Vegetables, and Fresh Markets

Markets are amazing and I wish we had more of them in the United States. Everything is so fresh when it comes from the market and there is so much to choose from. Markets are busy and can be dirty, but markets are where things happen–some people grocery shop, others make money from selling their goods, some people come for the social interaction, and others can’t wait to get out of there. In any case, markets hold the key to anyone’s stomach.

Fresh mangoes at the market. Tropical or sub-tropical climates are great for mangoes so this is a common fruit in Thailand, used for shakes, snack, cooking, and desserts.

Fresh mangoes at the market. Tropical or sub-tropical climates are great for mangoes so this is a common fruit in Thailand, used for shakes, snack, cooking, and desserts.

Because Thailand is located in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the globe, it produces many fruits that cannot be found in other parts of the world. Bananas and mangoes are plenty along with papaya, coconuts, melon, and pineapple. In Thailand, durian is the “king” of the fruits, large and spiky with a delectable, velvety “meat” inside, and mangosteen is the “queen,” smaller and round, about the size of a tomato and plum-colored–when it is broken open, sweet juicy and tangy pods are exposed that can be eaten whole. Dragonfruit and rambutan are also fun and delicious tropical fruits.

Durian is a Thai delicacy and can be very expensive because of the rich, creamy texture of the meat on the inside; it is often served with ice cream as a dessert. However, it stinks!! Durian smells so bad that people are prohibited from bringing it on public trains or to hotels; in some places, signs are posted with the fine about (several hundred dollars) in the case that someone brings durian with them.

Durian is a Thai delicacy and can be very expensive because of the rich, creamy texture of the meat on the inside; it is often served with ice cream as a dessert. However, it stinks!! Durian smells so bad that people are prohibited from bringing it on public trains or to hotels; in some places, signs are posted with the fine about (several hundred dollars) in the case that someone brings durian with them.

Dragonfruit is another popular fruit in Thailand (and Southeast Asia). There are two types: the ones on the left have whitish "meat" inside and the type on the left have "meat" that is a fuscia/purple color. (See next photo for a glimpse of the inside of dragonfruit...or Google it.)

Dragonfruit is another popular fruit in Thailand (and Southeast Asia). There are two types: the ones on the left have whitish “meat” inside and the type on the left have “meat” that is a fuscia/purple color. (See next photo for a glimpse of the inside of dragonfruit…or Google it.)

Some vendors will prepare the fresh fruit and package it up for customers (also keeping it protected from flies!). This disply shows many common fruits in Thailand: papaya, mango, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, rose apple, water chestnuts, mangosteen, and dragonfruit. (At the bottom center of the photo, he dragonfruit "meat" is the package with white and purple fruit speckled with tiny black edible seeds--like seeds from a kiwi; you eat it just as is.)

Some vendors will prepare the fresh fruit and package it up for customers (also keeping it protected from flies!). This disply shows many common fruits in Thailand: papaya, mango, pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, rose apple, water chestnuts, mangosteen, and dragonfruit. (At the bottom center of the photo, he dragonfruit “meat” is the package with white and purple fruit speckled with tiny black edible seeds–like seeds from a kiwi; you eat it just as is.)

The vegetable scene is just as diverse as the fruit world with green leafy vegetables, unbelievably long green beans, several types of eggplant (purple, green, baby eggplant), multiple varieties of chilis, root vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and practically anything else one could imagine. Most of the vegetables retain their nutritional content when used in cooking because they are rarely boiled and almost never overcooked, but slightly steamed or stir-fried for only a few minutes.

Fresh vegetables are used in meal preparation in almost every dish in Thailand and you can find just about everything you need in the market. Here is a small selection that includes lemongrass, carrots, severa types of eggplant and chilis, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.

Fresh vegetables are used in meal preparation in almost every dish in Thailand and you can find just about everything you need in the market. Here is a small selection that includes lemongrass, carrots, severa types of eggplant and chilis, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.

Lastly, the marketplace is where people can get their fresh meats and fish. In some places I saw the fish literally swimming around in buckets, oblivious to their pending doom. Fish and meat will be cut up and prepared right out in the open so its the freshest one can find. Or it is available already cooked and ready to eat. The marketplace is famous for having great street food and snacks, especially fried food like fried chicken or fried bananas.

Fresh-caught fish-on-a-stick or hot on the grill is a normal thing to see in the markets.

Fresh-caught fish-on-a-stick or hot on the grill is a normal thing to see in the markets.

Many types of foods and meats are available from street vendors in the markets. Meat-on-a-stick is very common; here you can see chicken, sausage, pork, and ground-up fish rolled into balls (on a stick). Freshly grilled, this is Asia's form of "fast food." (Also in the photo are bags of soups, noodles, and curries to-go.)

Many types of foods and meats are available from street vendors in the markets. Meat-on-a-stick is very common; here you can see chicken, sausage, pork, and ground-up fish rolled into balls (on a stick). Freshly grilled, this is Asia’s form of “fast food.” (Also in the photo are bags of soups, noodles, and curries to-go.)

Herbs, Spices, & Oils

I think the secret to Thai cooking is in the herbs, spices, and oils that are used. Typically the oils used for frying are not that strong. For example, soy oil, used for lightly frying spring rolls, adds just a small touch to the rolls so as not to diminish the flavors inside. Some other sauces used in cooking are usually made from a combination of several ingredients such as oyster sauce (savory), soy sauce (salty), palm sugar (sweet), chili oil or actual chilis (spicy), and lime juice or rind (sour). Another common ingredient in Thai cooking is coconut cream (or coconut milk); this both tapers off the spice from other ingredients and creates a smooth, creamy consistency.

There is a variety of herbs and plants used in Thai recipes that enhance the dishes–some ingredients that one might not ever expect. For example, the leaves from a Kaffir lime tree are often added to soups and curries. (I found out in my cooking class in Chiang Mai that you are not supposed to eat the leaves; they are just there for added flavor. I thought I was supposed to eat everything in the bowl so since I’d been in Thailand, I’d chomped more than once on the tough leaves; I’m relieved to know I can just push them to the side now.) Other popular plants used for cooking include lemongrass, which adds a refreshing twist, ginger, and Thai basil.

Beverages

In addition to universal beverages such as water, soda, coffee, and beer (Thai local beers are called “Chang” and “Tiger”), Thailand has a handful of unique beverage options. Fresh fruit juices and smoothies are very common, but no fancy ingredients or protein powders are added; most fruit drinks consist of real pieces of freshly cut fruit, maybe a splash of simple syrup, and either water (for juices) or ice (for smoothies). Tea is also very common as it is in many Asian countries. Green tea can be found anywhere and lemongrass tea is great for a post-meal drink as it is good for digestion. In addition, people often drink the coconut milk straight out of a fresh coconut sold practically right off the tree and cut open with a machete.

Coconuts are often picked right off the tree and sold from a street vendor or out of the back of a truck, like here, with people lining up to get them fresh.

Coconuts are often picked right off the tree and sold from a street vendor or out of the back of a truck, like here, with people lining up to get them fresh.

A Thailand specialty is Thai Iced Tea. Now this is a treat! I don’t even know what all is in it, but all the spices and things that are mixed together turn it to a burnt orange color as it is heated, then poured over ice and topped off with a drizzle of condensed milk. This is the perfect beverage to enjoy on a hot afternoon, but be prepared for intense sweetness!

My beverage of choice in Thaland is a mango smoothie. I have been eating mango-something (usually as a smoothie) almost every day I have been in Southeast Asia. I just can't get enough of them!

My beverage of choice in Thaland is a mango smoothie. I have been eating mango-something (usually as a smoothie) almost every day I have been in Southeast Asia. I just can’t get enough of them!

Small Plates and Appetizers

Most people are familiar with Thai finger foods and appetizers. Spring rolls are a popular and pretty healthy little starter as they are filled with fresh veggies–such as carrots, cabbage, and bean sprouts, clear skinny noodles, and an optional ground up meat. They can either be wrapped in clear rice paper (which is common in Vietnamese restaurants), or wheat-based pastry-like paper, then lightly fried until they are golden brown and slightly crispy. Spring rolls are complemented with a sweet and sour chili dipping sauce.

Fresh spring rolls served with the traditional sweet and sour chili sauce on the side. A tasty starter!

Fresh spring rolls served with the traditional sweet and sour chili sauce on the side. A tasty starter!

Another favorite appetizer is chicken (or pork) satay which is made by putting thin strips of marinaded meat on a stick and grilling them, then serving them with a lightly sweet but savory peanut sauce to dip it in. So many flavors together in one bite! Some other types of appetizers I have seen include small portions of spiced up shrimp or other seafood served on rice crackers.

Chicken Satay (or prok--I think this was pork) is served with a savory peanut sauce with a kick for dipping as well as a refreshing cucumber/onion salad on the side.

Chicken Satay (or prok–I think this was pork) is served with a savory peanut sauce with a kick for dipping as well as a refreshing cucumber/onion salad on the side.

This is spicy blue-swimmer crab prepared and served on rice crackers at "namh" in Bangkok.

This is spicy blue-swimmer crab prepared and served on rice crackers at “namh” in Bangkok.

Soups

Noodles and soups or broth-based dishes can be found in every restaurant, household, or street market anywhere you turn in Thailand. The well known soups that many people have gotten used to being on menus are hot and sour soup and lemongrass chicken coconut soup. Soups are prepared with a big pot of boiling broth (meat or coconut base) with herbs and spices, then adding prawns/egg/meat and lots of vegetables such as mushrooms, tomatoes, basil leaves, carrots, etc. In some cases, noodles will be what the soup is composed around and the noodles will either be “dipped” in the boiling broth for a quick cook or served as the bulk of the dish like in the traditional khao soi soup from northern Thailand. In general, soups and broth-based dishes are both healthy and full of flavor.

Tom Kha Gai -- or Chicken Coconut Soup with Lemongrass--is a favorite Thai soup around the worls. This is the soup I chose to make in my cooking class and it was as good as ever, thanks to "A's" wonderful instruction. We added some vegetables (mushroom and tomato) and kaffir lime leaves for flavoring and substance.

Tom Kha Gai — or Chicken Coconut Soup with Lemongrass–is a favorite Thai soup around the worls. This is the soup I chose to make in my cooking class and it was as good as ever, thanks to “A’s” wonderful instruction. We added some vegetables (mushroom and tomato) and kaffir lime leaves for flavoring and substance.

Khao Soi Gai is a popular coconut curry soup with fried/crispy noodles eaten in northern Thailand. Onion, chives, and lime can all be added for flavoring or as a garnish.

Khao Soi Gai is a popular coconut curry soup with fried/crispy noodles eaten in northern Thailand. Onion, chives, and lime can all be added for flavoring or as a garnish.

Curries

Curries seem to come in all colors and varieties across Asia. Based on the curry spice, curries are a type of stew that is filled with meat and big chunks of vegetables, usually served with rice. Thai curries can be very very VERY spicy, however, the actual curry flavor is not strong as it tends to be in Indian curries. In Thailand, I have seen green curry, yellow curry, red curry, massaman curry, and panang curry. A curry can be on the thicker side or more like a soup, depending on the ratio of coconut cream (thick) versus coconut milk (thin) that is used in preparation. Starting with a pre-prepared curry paste (mixed with any variety of other spices) blended into oil in a pan, a curry dish is created and made spicier with chilis or tamer and creamier with more coconut cream. In Thailand, the curries tend to be served in a bowl like soup, whereas in other parts of the world, curries come thicker in stew form.

Vegetable curry served with rice. While Thai curries can get very spicy, this dish--served to me in Laos--was mild and more Indian-style with the base made of yellow curry.

Vegetable curry served with rice. While Thai curries can get very spicy, this dish–served to me in Laos–was mild and more Indian-style with the base made of yellow curry.

At home, I am usually safe ordering a green curry that comes in coconut broth with lots of green veggies. I made the mistake in Bangkok not once, but twice, of ordering green curry dishes that ended up being way hotter than I could handle. This is a different kind of burn than Latin American spiciness; this burned to the core, set fire to my lips, and made my stomach churn. Apparently to Thai people, “mild spicy” is actually meant to turn you into a fire-breathing dragon. And the rule of thumb with chilis is that the smaller it is, the bigger punch it packs! Interestingly enough, the spiciness level actually varies by region: southern Thai dishes on on the extreme heat meter, whereas dishes in northern Thailand are tamer, milder, easier on the stomach and lips. No more “mild spicy” for me in southern Thailand…

This is a green curry with beef, eggplant, and Thai basil served with rice. I ordered this when I treated myself to "namh," a well-know fancy restaurant in Bangkok. Unfortunaely, my experience wasn't as pleasant as I had hoped because this dish was so spicy that it practically burned my insides out! They gave more lots more rice as well as some palm sugar to curb the fiery spice. It was a beatiful meal, at least!

This is a green curry with beef, eggplant, and Thai basil served with rice. I ordered this when I treated myself to “namh,” a well-know fancy restaurant in Bangkok. Unfortunaely, my experience wasn’t as pleasant as I had hoped because this dish was so spicy that it practically burned my insides out! They gave more lots more rice as well as some palm sugar to curb the fiery spice. It was a beatiful meal, at least!

Other yellow and red curries have slightly different flavors from the green curry and tend to complement the vegetables that are added to it; some typical vegetables that are found in curries include eggplant, baby eggplant, green beans, pumpkin, carrot, onion, peppers, and potatoes. Massaman curry (a Persian style curry) is orange and mild with potatoes, onions, and meat. Panang curry is probably my favorite because of the creaminess and character it is known for: based on a red curry, the paste is blended with nutmeg then cooked with whichever meat and vegetables that are desired, usually carrots and green beans, at least.

Top: Pad thai stir fry with prawns. Bottom: Chicken panang curry (without added vegetables). I learned to make both dishes at Thai Orchid Cooking School in Chiang Mai and they were both very tasty! Can't wait to eat them again...Mmm, mmm, good!

Top: Pad thai stir fry with prawns. Bottom: Chicken panang curry (without added vegetables). I learned to make both dishes at Thai Orchid Cooking School in Chiang Mai and they were both very tasty! Can’t wait to eat them again…Mmm, mmm, good!

Fried Rice, Noodles, & Stir Fry

This is a big category because there are so many dishes that fall into this category. Continuing with the “healthy” theme of Thai cuisine, most of these meals have tons of vegetables mixed in. In addition to every kind of fried rice you can find mixed with egg, diced veggies, and sometimes meat, some famous noodle dishes are pad-thai (egg noodle base) and pad-see-ew (wide, flat noodle base, sometimes called “fried noodle”), both cooked in a frying pan with a mixture containing oyster sauce with some palm sugar. In pad-see-ew, common veggies include carrots and green leafy vegetables like kale; fried egg plus meats like chicken or pork are usually added to this dish. Pad-thai traditionally includes bean sprouts, shredded carrots, ground peanuts, fried egg, and prawns. Pad-thai seems to be a favorite dish for many people who enjoy Thai food.

Stir-fried noodle and vegetable dishes are eaten all the time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner across Thailand. Noodles are a staple in any household. This is Pad-See-Ew with veggies, egg, and chicken and stir-fried kale with pork and garlic. Both were very flavorful, although slightly salty.

Stir-fried noodle and vegetable dishes are eaten all the time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner across Thailand. Noodles are a staple in any household. This is Pad-See-Ew with veggies, egg, and chicken and stir-fried kale with pork and garlic. Both were very flavorful, although slightly salty.

Other stir fry dishes are cashew chicken, ginger chicken, and sweet and sour chicken, among others. (Any of these dishes can be prepared with other meats or seafood such as beef, pork, or prawns.) Sweet and sour has been my go-to dish here because it’s hard to mess it up. I always know I’ll get my veggies because in Thailand, this dish is composed of tomato, cucumber, peppers, and pineapple plus whatever meat is thrown in with the sweet and sour sauce. And as with all stir fry dishes in Thailand, cooking time is minimal–toss all the ingredients in a pan for a few minutes and dinner’s ready.

Sweet and sour chicken is a popular stir fry dish and one of my favorites. You can't go wrong with lots of veggies and a delicious sauce, served here with white rice molded in the shape of a teddy bear.

Sweet and sour chicken is a popular stir fry dish and one of my favorites. You can’t go wrong with lots of veggies and a delicious sauce, served here with white rice molded in the shape of a teddy bear.

Desserts

It seems that dessert is not always an assumed part of a meal as it is in other places in the world, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem necessary in Thailand as many of the dishes have an element of sweetness to them already. The most common after meal treat that is served is fresh fruit. Going slightly fancier, in the markets and on the street, I have tasted dessert creations revolving around bananas such as “rotees” which are sort of like crepes and are usually filled with cooked egg and banana (again, mixing flavors/items that are uncommon to see together) then topped with Nutella; also, there are ladies who prepare “fried bananas” wrapped in a tasty battered pastry before being deep-fried.

Last, but not least: mango with sticky rice. The best dessert EVER!! In my cooking class, I finally learned that the secret is in the sauce. Well, mango is good any time any place in my opinion, but the sauce that is poured on the sticky rice is made from a coconut cream base with a little added sugar and a pinch of salt. Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, save room for this tasty mango treat! It’s worth it.

Mango and sticky rice is a common and popular dessert served all over Thailand. In my cooking class in Chiang Mai, I learned how to make this and I am so excited about it!! I could live on this stuff...

Mango and sticky rice is a common and popular dessert served all over Thailand. In my cooking class in Chiang Mai, I learned how to make this and I am so excited about it!! I could live on this stuff…

As I have been moving through Southeast Asia, most of the food I have seen and eaten is a spin-off of either Thai food or Vietnamese food. Same same, but different. Because Thai cuisine is so freakin’ delicious and there is so much variety, this will likely be the only time I write about food, unless I come across something unique in one of the other places I go. After one month of traveling so far, the thing I miss the most is cheese (and wine!); cheese is avaiable here but I have been eating mainly local food which doesn’t include cheese very often. But as I was writing this chapter and preparing the photos, my taste buds were buzzing and now I can’t wait to get back to Thailand for more Thai food. And if ever YOU find yourself in Thailand, hopefully you know now to take advantage of where you are and eat your heart out!!

TRAVEL TIP: When traveling to place where the food or meal customs are different from what you know, make friends with a local and ask them teach you or show you. During my cooking class in Thailand, the instructor, “A,” took us on a field trip to the market where she introduced us to many new types of foods and educated us on how to cook with them or eat them. I was so grateful to her for that! Sometimes new foods or exotic fruits can be intimidating because you just don’t know what to expect, but you can make it really fun by showing a little curiosity and asking for some “eating lessons.” And you’ll try something new which can be fun and exciting. Also, take a stroll through a local market just to see what’s there. You will learn a lot about what you might find in your food if you see where it comes from first! For example, if you see frogs and bugs being sold, you might know to double check every time you order to make sure you’re not getting something you might not have the desire to consume. Or who knows? You just might get to inclination to munch on some giant ants with garlic, salt, and lime!

Happy drooling…

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 3: Cultural Experiences in Chiang Mai

After spending about a week in Bangkok and knowing it was time to make a move, I bought a train ticket that would take me all the way to Chiang Mai, a town in the northern region of Thailand. While cheap one-hour flights are readily available (It would be like flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco), I opted for the 12-hour train trip so I could see what Thailand really looks like in between two major cities as I am not stopping to try to visit every city the guidebook suggests this time. While the lunch they served on the train was so nasty that I managed only to eat some of the white rice, the rest of the trip was quite enjoyable and I passed the time reading, writing, and watching lush green jungles and wild rivers pass by outside my window.

In this basic map of Thailand (and the neighboring Southeast Asian countries), you can see the relative distance between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. (You can also see where Laos--where I am now-- is in relation to Thailand.)

In this basic map of Thailand (and the neighboring Southeast Asian countries), you can see the relative distance between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. (You can also see where Laos–where I am now– is in relation to Thailand.)

Thai CULTURE at its Finest

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, however, it has much more of a village or small town feel than a city vibe. Whereas the elevation of Bangkok is a whopping 14 feet above sea level, Chiang Mai sits at 1,000 feet, located in a mountainous cloud forest (high-altitude rainforest) region which means that although the humidity is still quite tangible, the overall temperature is cooler than it is in Bangkok by a couple of degrees, say low 80s. This is also Backpacker Central. I probably saw more obviously non-Thai travelers here in two days than I saw in Bangkok in an entire week. (That is probably due in part to me staying in the business sector in Bangkok as opposed to the downtown area.) Most seem to be from Europe and Australia. Oh, yes, and China, since it is only separated from Thailand by pieces of Myanmar (North/West of Thailand) or Laos (North/East of Thailand). But to be completely honest, I can’t tell the difference very well between the Thai and the Chinese; the only tourist giveaway would be cameras and selfie sticks.

The Saturday Market just getting started on the streets of Chiang Mai.

The Saturday Market just getting started on the streets of Chiang Mai.

There is a lot to do in Chiang Mai and it is easy to get around. The city was originally built surrounded by a moat and high walls to protect it from Burmese invaders (from “Burma,” now known as Myanmar) over 700 years ago. The Thai were successful in their endeavors and while the wall has been mostly demolished, the moat still exists so the main part of the city is a square–referred to as “The Old City”–with water on all four sides and a couple bridges on every side allowing for easy crossover to the outside. It could probably take about an hour and a half to walk the perimeter of the square so everything within the square is accessible by foot. Most of the city consists of wide, busy main streets with small lanes intertwining and connecting everything. While there is a variety of shops, restaurants, temples, and lodging/homes along every street, it seems that no block can be complete without the essential Thai massage parlor or beauty salon and a 7-Eleven.

The center of Chiang Mai is a square part of town with a moat (and pieces of the ancient wall) surrouding all sides.

The center of Chiang Mai is a square part of town with a moat (and pieces of the ancient wall) surrouding all sides.

My lodging experience was very different here than it was in Bangkok as most of the set-ups are “guesthouses,” or converted homes made to accommodate many people, either in their own room or in a dorm room. There are hostels as well, but the guesthouses supposedly offer a warmer, homier environment. I spent an entire day “guesthouse-scouting” but didn’t come up with anything good AND available. Most of the nice places were already full as there was a National Holiday that week: it was the Queen’s birthday, which is the day Thailand celebrates Mother’s Day as well. It is neat being in a place where a king and queen are in charge of a country. The King has been the head of Thailand for 69 years–the longest reign of any king in Thailand yet–and he and the Queen are highly revered and loved by all. The country celebrates Father’s Day on the King’s birthday and Mother’s Day on the Queen’s birthday. There were many special festivities going on in honor of the Queen/Mother’s Day. Here is a short video of a traditional Thai performance for the holiday: http://youtu.be/bDqZJeMflpE

Photos and paintings of the beloved King and Queen of Thailand can be seen in public everywhere--in front of temples, in public parks, and outside business buildings, to name a few examples.

Photos and paintings of the beloved King and Queen of Thailand can be seen in public everywhere–in front of temples, in public parks, and outside business buildings, to name a few examples.

The cleanliness, order, and functionality of Bangkok was sorely missed, but I can’t say that I didn’t know what I was signing up for here. I bounced around a couple times, staying in four different places the first four nights which drove me insane, but I finally got a room at Rendezvous Guesthouse and locked in for a couple days. It was more than double the price of anywhere I had stayed thus far, but so worth it to have A/C, wifi, private bathroom with a hot shower, breakfast included, and peace of mind that I had my own space to spread out and leave my stuff secure during the days. I know I’m backpacking and everything, but one night in a crowded, co-ed 8-bunk dorm with a bunch of 20-year-olds was enough to make me feel like I’m too old to be doing that. Sometimes a dorm will work, but I will avoid it when I can. Last time I was backpacking, I was fresh out of the Peace Corps and pinching pennies as I was pretty much broke off my bum; this time, I can have different, more comfortable, experience as I am older and no longer broke. I’m not swimming in cash, but I have more than enough to not worry about spending a few extra dollars for quality of experience.

While there are some parts of town that come alive at night with busy restaurants, bars, a nightclub, and a HUGE night bazaar (market), the rest of the town pretty much shuts down between seven and eight in the evening. A major thing that draws visitors to Chiang Mai is the opportunity for daytime adventure and cultural activities. People come here to study Thai at language schools (for any of you who know Guatemala, Chiang Mai is kind of like the Antigua of Thailand), take Thai massage courses, go on meditation retreats, study Buddhism and Thai culture, learn how to cook Thai food, teach English-as-a-second-language, and engage in the practice of Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. Other activity options include ziplining, mountain biking, kayaking, river rafting, visiting tiger and other animal parks, trekking to “hill-tribe” villages, having up-close-and-personal experiences with elephants, taking tours of temples, or just getting a massage and eating in town.

On my first full day here, in addition to my guesthouse investigation and walking all around the square to orient myself, I decided to drop by a “Fish Spa” that I passed; my former roommate, Henry, had told me about this Thai tradition so I was curious. Have you ever had a fish tank and bought the little sucker fish to keep the tank clean? Well, that is the concept of the Fish Spa. All you do is place your feet (up to mid-calf) into a tank with about a hundred of those little sucker fish and let them have at ’em! The purpose is to get a full foot cleaning as the little fish suck off all the dead skin; it is also a tactic for preventing bacterial and fungal infections. Being that the majority of people in Thailand wear sandals and go barefoot regularly to enter buildings and temples (and even some bathrooms!), I can see why this practice has gained popularity for practical purposes. At first, it tickled so much that I couldn’t even keep my feet in the water, but eventually I got used to it; they nibbled away for 20 minutes. Video clip if you’re interested: http://youtu.be/dVbmQQl1h5k

My first Fish Spa experience in Thailand, where the little sucker fish clean your feet by sucking off all the dead skin, leaving your feet nice and soft. Only recommended if you can manage your ticklishness!

My first Fish Spa experience in Thailand, where the little sucker fish clean your feet by sucking off all the dead skin, leaving your feet nice and soft. Only recommended if you can manage your ticklishness!

Another thing that interested me was getting massage training. I figured I might as well since I’m here. Originally I thought I’d do the Thai massage training–and then I went and had a Thai massage. That changed my mind. Thai massages are amazing and they can hurt! Your body gets twisted and bent in so many different ways and the masseuse practically crawls on top of you, using her legs/feet/forearms/elbows/shins/whatever to dig deep and work the tissue and she even twists you in such a way that your back will crack. It hurts so good. But I couldn’t imagine myself comfortably doing that to anyone else. Luckily, I found a school that offered a 2-day Foot Massage & Reflexology course over the weekend that was much more along my practical preferences so I signed up.

When I arrived to the Old Medicine Hospital Thai Massage School Shivagakomarpaj at 9 AM Saturday, I was pretty excited because it has been awhile since I had the time to really study anything and practice something new. There were a total of five women taking the course and we had “Pad,” a former monk, as our primary instructor with two other secondary instructors guiding us. In Thailand, there is a very strong spiritual belief and healing energy associated with massage–it is not simply for relaxation, but for facilitating balance and flow in a person’s body. Foot massage is not nearly as intense as a full body Thai massage, but it is considered a basic form of healing nonetheless.

This was the setting where the foot massage and reflexology course took place--the instructors demonstrating in the middle so everyone had a clear view.

This was the setting where the foot massage and reflexology course took place–the instructors demonstrating in the middle so everyone had a clear view.

It was really neat to learn about the other women, all 5 of us traveling (or living abroad) independently. Instead of using names, we started calling each other by the places we’re from which meant collectively we were AussieThai, Brazil, California, Japan, and Venezuela. As I have mentioned before, traveling really gets people to open up about themselves in amazing ways; I don’t know if it’s the break in routine, the freedom from the expectations that people around us (namely family, friends, and coworkers) naturally place on us at home, or the exposure to new forms of stimulation, but it is intriguing nonetheless. Two of the ladies came to Thailand specifically for the 2-week Thai massage course (the weekend foot massage was just an extra thing they signed up for), and the other two were spending longer amounts of time in Thailand, one for work, the other for just living. It was a fun and dynamic group for sure!

We covered a lot in two days, first learning how to make our own cream, balm, and herbal scrub from scratch, then observing the moves from the instructors and practicing a full foot massage flow–lasting 30 minutes each foot–on each other. On the second day, we moved into the reflexology points on the feet. There are 27 total on each foot, mostly the same, with a few exceptions; for example, a particular pressure point on the left foot is associated with the heart while the same point on the right foot is associated with the liver. By using foot reflexology, serious problems in other parts of the body can be identified and, if the issue persists, further medical treatment will be recommended. The course wrapped up with learning the technique for calf/leg massage, then closing out the flow. With practice, the entire massage from start to finish for both legs should take about an hour. At the end of the day on Sunday, we each received our official certification for the course. (So since I am currently job-searching, I guess I can add this to my résumé now, right? And just putting it out there: I am still unemployed; I will work for food…or lodging…when I get back to California.)

Goofing off after receiving our course certifications, we all enjoyed taking the course together. Back: Venezuela (Marianela) and the AussieThai (Juntra). Front: Japan (Maki), Brazil (Kenya), & California (me).

Goofing off after receiving our course certifications, we all enjoyed taking the course together. Back: Venezuela (Marianela) and the AussieThai (Juntra). Front: Japan (Maki), Brazil (Kenya), & California (me).

Another thing I did over the weekend was stroll through the huge “Saturday Market,” which is apparently one of the biggest in Chiang Mai. All the vendors were out with their food stands, artwork, jewelry, clothing, and other goods. Markets are a great place to people watch. This particular market was packed to the brim with tourists and has probably become a tourist attraction in and of itself. But there were locals as well, taking advantage of the goods and services offered at a cheaper price than normal. I sort of ended up there on accident, but I couldn’t resist picking up a couple postcards, devouring Thai-spiced sausage-on-a-stick, snapping a few photos, and grabbing a fresh mango smoothie “for the road.”

At the Saturday Market, the local Thai Ice Cream Lady was scooping up tasty cones as she pushed her cart through the crowded streets.

At the Saturday Market, the local Thai Ice Cream Lady was scooping up tasty cones as she pushed her cart through the crowded streets.

Saturday Market in Chiang Mai is filled with food vendor stands, including this one, where fresh fruit smoothies are blended and poured on the spot.

Saturday Market in Chiang Mai is filled with food vendor stands, including this one, where fresh fruit smoothies are blended and poured on the spot. (That mango one is about to be mine!)

While I have seen mostly couples, pairs, or groups traveling around here and people sometimes have had a surprised reaction when they learn that I am traveling solo, I feel like a good handful of female solo travelers have been crossing my path. Maybe it’s the vibe I’m putting off. In addition to all the ladies at the massage school, I spent time with two other women in Chiang Mai. The first one, Abby, I met completely by chance. I was wandering around town looking for a post office and where I thought the post office would be, there I found Abby glancing down at her map, looking up at buildings, taking a few steps, then checking the map again. It was like a mirror image of what I was doing so I walked over and asked her what she was looking for and if she knew where the post office was. Immediate friendship. We found the post office, went and had lunch together, then split up for a bit. Abby had just completed a summer job in China and was traveling around for a month or so before returning to Colorado to start a geology-related job. It just so happens that her cousin had served in the Peace Corps, her sister had lived in Guatemala for a year, and she and her sister both know a PC Volunteer who served in Guatemala (in the community Eco-tourism sector) around the same time I did my service there. (I only knew Trent by name and “turtle-worker” reputation, not personally.) Talk about a small world.

Abby and I eating a traditional noodle and chicken dish called

Abby and I eating a traditional noodle and chicken dish called “Kao Soy” for lunch the afternoon we met.

In addition to Abby, a friend of mine and former pre-service trainer for my group in Peace Corps, Christine, is also currently traveling around Southeast Asia indefinitely, having recently completed a stint in South Sudan as a volunteer for the United Nations.We arranged to meet up in Chiang Mai, where she told me some crazy stories about South Sudan–not a place I’d ever like to go. Ever. Never ever. Relieved and ecstatic would be understatements to how Christine feels about being finished with her contract there; she is happy to be in a place of the world that has a reputation for being a place of healing. Some of the experiences Christine shared with me made me consider the sometimes unnecessary loads that “volunteers” take on in an effort to help others. Christine is an amazing woman and I feel that the next phase of her life will undoubtedly be a brighter one than the last.

That evening, Christine and I met up with Abby again so we could all attend the Ladyboy Cabaret Show together in the night bazaar–a show that had been recommended to me by my friend, Kristin, whom I had met in Bangkok. A recent cultural development in Thailand is the concept of a “Ladyboy,” transgender men who acquire “lady parts,” most commonly in the form of breasts, as well as “lady lifestyles” in regards to dressing and just being in life. While it is more common now than ever to see masculine-looking women in Thailand who you can discern as men as soon as they open their mouths, it is still a taboo topic with the modest and relatively private locals. I heard it is creating an issue with the monks and temples as well because monks live by certain rules relating to women–for example, male monks cannot physically touch a woman, if they are transferring an item to a woman, they have to put it on the ground first from where she will then pick it up, and women cannot enter a temple while they are menstruating–so being that ladyboys identify as women, but usually still have male parts, male/female classification isn’t so straightforward anymore. Blurred lines, perhaps? Anyway, we all thought the show was pretty entertaining and the costumes were great, along with the dramatic lip-syncing. Here’s a clip from one of the performances: https://youtu.be/4Owe__rhVwo

The costumes and performances were all out Cabaret-style with high energy, big moves, and lots of feathers.

The costumes and performances were all out Cabaret-style with high energy, big moves, and lots of feathers.

This is Abby (far right), Christine (second from right), the Rihanna Ladyboy, and I after the show. Crazy resemblance, right?

This is Abby (far right), Christine (second from right), the Rihanna Ladyboy, and I after the show. Crazy resemblance, right?

Some of the ladyboys weren't as convincing...

Some of the ladyboys weren’t as convincing…

The following day was low key, but I had plans to meet up with Abby in the afternoon for some activities around town. We planned to go to a temple, but it was too late in the day so we opted for some Thai Iced tea and the fish spa again. After that, we shared a delicious meal at a nice Burmese restaurant called “The Swan,” then hopped over to open night mic at a local Jazz club for a little bit before parting ways. It was really nice to have that companionship again; despite the minor annoyances of Chiang Mai, spending time with Abby and planning activities together made my week much more enjoyable.

On Wednesday, I signed up for an all day cooking class at Thai Orchid Cooking School. While I will save the food details for my next Backpacking Bonus which is all about Thai cuisine, I will say that the cooking experience was fabulous. Many of the dishes are so simple to make and usually it’s the chopping that will take the most time. The lady who runs the school, “A,” is wonderful. She runs the classes out of her home from 2-10 people daily (except Sundays) and creates a personalized experience for everyone; each person gets to select their favorite of three food options in each of the following categories: appetizer, soup, curry, stir fry, and dessert. By the end of the class at 3:30 in the afternoon, we had each prepared five dishes (and eaten them)! “A” also takes her students to the local market to show them what the ingredients look like, where to find them, and how to order them. She educated us on the local fruits and vegetables and how to eat them. Then, when we returned to her house, we sampled some of the popular fruits, fried banana, and lemongrass tea. The business she runs is brilliant and lucrative: for $35/person, each student comes away from the class feeling accomplished, excited, and full. Whereas I am trying to live on about $35-$40 per day, “A” is often bringing in nearly ten times that amount on a daily basis and she is so efficient, friendly, and humble. This is a great local business that I would encourage anyone visiting Chiang Mai to support.

Here

Here “A” is demonstrating to us the simple steps involved in making spring rolls.

I was so excited to dig into my pad thai creation! And even happier that I now know how to make it on my own.

I was so excited to dig into my pad thai creation! And even happier that I now know how to make it on my own.

Something else I was looking into doing while I was in Chiang Mai was taking a full day trip to the Elephant Nature Park to have an up-close-and-personal experience with a couple of rescued, formerly abused elephants. However, the park was fully booked for over week out (and I was only planning to be in Chiang Mai for a week) and the price for the very personal one-day package (8 people for 4 elephants which included feeding them, walking with them into the jungle and watching them play, bathing them in the river, and then observing them more in the afternoon, plus a picnic lunch, 30 minutes of river rafting back to the park, and transportation) was 6000 Baht, or nearly $175. I almost did it. For the experience, I was ready to pay that. It likely would have been worth it. But then there was the tipping point of my decision: those first four days of feeling unsettled and claustrophobic in Chiang Mai. Too many tourists, not enough space, and way too hot to be worrying about where I would stay from one day to the next. I know better than to try to force something when the universe has other plans; sometimes you can push and persistence will pay off, but at other times, you just have to know when to stop and have faith that things will organically happen as they are meant to be. In this case, I took the hint, knowing that I will very likely encounter elephants in other places in the journey ahead–and those places will probably be more affordable and have fewer tourists.

Unfortunately, before I left Chiang Mai, I had to move from my mini-hotel room to yet another lodge because the place was fully booked for Mother’s Day. In a total of eight nights I spent in Chiang Mai, I spent those nights in five different places. I could say poor planning on my part, however, all the info I had researched said not to lock yourself in anywhere because once you pay for it, they will NOT reimburse you if you change your mind (or if you get eaten alive by bedbugs and decide to leave), and some places you may not want to stay in for more than a night or two. I made my last move to “Smile House 1 Guesthouse” and it actually ended up being my favorite place of the week with lots of space, natural light, and although no A/C, there was a fan and the ventilation was fine. For about $11.50/night for a double room (because no singles were available), I had two nights of perfect sleep. The place even had a pool!

My final room in Chiang Mai at Smile House 1--a fabulous, airy, spacious bungalow!

My final room in Chiang Mai at Smile House 1–a fabulous, airy, spacious bungalow!

It seemed that things were working against me in Chiang Mai, but I finally could focus enough to write and finish a big chapter. As soon as I booked my ongoing ticket out of town, I immediately felt better and my last full day was smooth. I ran some errands, then headed up to a temple on the outskirts of town called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is the most revered temple of Chiang Mai because it sits way up on a mountaintop overlooking the entire city. To enter the temple, visitors must ascend a staircase with 306 steps, which is regarded as an act of meditation. The temple contains a lot of the usual golden Buddhas with two main prayer rooms, beautiful gardens, and a meditation area. I didn’t visit many temples in Chiang Mai, but I am glad I chose this one as the setting was peaceful.

Golden Buddhas surrounding the center temple at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Golden Buddhas surrounding the center temple at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

A panoramic view of Chiang Mai from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the revered temple sitting high above the city.

A panoramic view of Chiang Mai from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the revered temple sitting high above the city.

Classic view of the center temple and surrounding structures at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Classic view of the center temple and surrounding structures at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

That evening I had one more thing to do. My friend Alisa, from California, had seen that I was in Chiang Mai and suggested that I connect with her friend Peter via Facebook. I used to dog-sit for Alisa and her husband, Paul, before I started Peace Corps, and we have stayed in touch. Sure enough, when I reached out to Peter, who has been living in Chiang Mai for two and a half years now, he said that he and his wife, On, would be at a local spot that evening about a 10-minute walk from me. I wasn’t really sure was I was walking into, but I found myself at a tiny corner bar where both ex-pats and Thais hang out and play music. Peter, a songwriter, regularly accompanies local artists who sing while he plays the guitar (sometimes with other guys as well). I didn’t expect to be surrounded by ex-pats, but the handful of them, along with some very sweet Thai women (one of them Peter’s wife, On) were great company. Peter and his friend John, a California native who has retired and has been in Thailand for 6 years, both shared some great travel advice with me regarding the places I will be visiting soon. Because they know the area well, they both offered to be of assistance if I run into any trouble or just want any recommendations. So it was great to make new friends and hang around for some fun music! (Thank you, Alisa, for connecting us!)

Paul and his wife, On, were wonderful hosts to me when I stopped over to the local spot where Paul plays music regularly.

Paul and his wife, On, were wonderful hosts to me when I stopped over to the local spot where Paul plays music regularly.

I am trying to outrun monsoon season, which hits the Southeast Asia mainland hard in September, with heavy rains through October. This pending weather is dictating my travel route so I have to move fast through the mainland and am planning to spend another day or two in Laos, then head to Cambodia for 7-10 days which should take me to the first week of September, at which point I may slide back across the border into Thailand again so I can fly out of Bangkok cheaply to get to Bali, in the Indonesian Archipelago. Monsoon season in the mainland is actually dry season for most of Indonesia so it will be a perfect time to be there. Plus all the summer vacation tourists will be back in their own countries which means fewer crowds and lower prices. That’s a bonus that I am very much looking forward to after getting double-slammed by summer vacation and national holiday visitors in Chiang Mai.

TRAVEL TIP: Spend a few minutes studying a map and then walking around a new town once you arrive. Getting oriented from the start may save a lot of time and frustration as it could keep you from getting lost. If you know where you are, you’ll know how long it takes to get to where you need to go, reducing the likelihood of not making it to a tour/bus station/other scheduled activity on time. Also, if you’ve been in transit for several hours, taking a walk through town is a good way to stretch out and get your legs going while feeling out the vibe of the new place. And if you’re really looking, you might discover some hidden treasures or places you might want to revisit once you settle in!

Much love,

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 2: All About Bangkok

For some reason, this particular chapter has been blocking me. I left Bangkok two weeks ago and I am not even in Thailand anymore. But as Bangkok was my introduction to Southeast Asia, I feel like it should be an introduction to the poetic journey as well because it will set the tone for understanding the culture and way of life for all the places visited from here on out. Some of my next Backpacking Bonuses are already complete and will be posted shortly after this chapter, but I have to start here.

In my travel experiences thus far, I have learned that you can get a pretty good idea of a culture and how a society operates upon arrival by assessing the dogs and how people drive. I’m serious. Here are some examples: In Guatemala, especially in the more rural areas, the dogs are usually scrappy and mangy. You get close to them and they either jump away or aggressively bark at you; they might even bite you. People may kick them or throw stuff at them, and the dogs are often left to fend for themselves for food or just eat leftover corn tortillas. You can see the fear in many of those dogs’ eyes which is consistent with how much of Guatemalan society lives in fear and functions through intimidation and manipulation. In the United States, dogs are washed and groomed and can receive training to ensure that they are well-behaved. They have names on their dog tags, microchips inserted to prevent being lost, and rhinestone collars just because. There are doggie sweaters available for if your pup gets too cold, Halloween costumes, flea medicine, and even organic, vegan dog food. In the USA, people have the resources to treat the dogs as if they are a part of the family and spoil them–just as we spoil ourselves. We live in a consumer society where many people strive to achieve the “primped and proper” lifestyle: we couldn’t possibly wear clothing with holes or stains, and we have to drive a “nice” car and keep up with the latest technology. If it’s not personalized or perfect, then it’s not good enough and we couldn’t possibly be happy.

Switching to driving, India is a great place to start. “Step into the street at your own risk” would be a great sign to post on every street corner because pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way. In such an overpopulated country, it is all about survival of the fittest. The streets are jam-packed, lanes are disregarded–it’s about how many vehicles can actually fit on the road, regardless of space and comfort. People honk just to hear the sound of their horns, and if you really care about your own life, you should cross the street with a cow: people don’t really matter (there are too many there anyway), however cows are sacred and Indians actually stop for them as they wander in and around all the streets. You’ll always be safe with a cow.

In Central America, transportation involves a lot of improvisation and resourcefulness, creating paths where there are none and dealing with obstacles as they come–because everyone knows and expects that they will. While seat belts and safety precautions are less common in these fatalistic-minded societies, people in Central America are some of the best “defensive drivers” I have ever seen. And in the United States, there is usually order on the roads with defined lanes, traffic lights, cross walks, and speed limits. We have grown accustomed to this and perhaps take it for granted, losing attention and getting distracted with the assumption that everything on the road will just work out as the structure has intended. If anyone is not compliant with that structure, some people think they have to “teach that person a lesson” by tailgating, flipping them off, yelling at them, or any other futile action. Lastly, there is the sense of entitlement to the road: “I’m choosing to go over the speed limit and if there is anyone in the fast lane who is not going as fast as I am, they better move over and give me the lane!” I suppose you can find that anywhere, however, sometimes I worry about Unites States citizens’ survival skills compared to many other parts of the world.

A PLACE and its PEOPLE

Upon arrival to Bangkok, I was surprised to find that there are not very many cats and dogs wandering the streets. After skeptically observing the dogs that I did see and cautiously keeping my distance having become accustomed to Central America’s dog behavior, I found that the dogs in Thailand are quite subdued. They are very mellow, and I don’t know if they even know how to bark. (I’ve heard some small yappy dogs, but those don’t count. Tiny dogs always yap; I think it’s a genetic mis-wiring or something.) I noticed that people will give the dogs food, but the dogs never seem desperate for it. People can walk right past a dog or a cat and neither will flinch. They all coexist peacefully and respectfully in society. There seems to be a very similar attitude in regard to driving and transportation in general. If there is a person or obstacle in the street or on the sidewalk, people will actually go around it or slow down and allow the person/bike/animal/etc. to cross or pass by safely. It is a beautiful thing. There is so much respect for life and space and any sense of fear or entitlement is practically nonexistent.

The dominant religion in Thailand is Buddhism and while I don’t know enough about it to explain it here, my observations have convinced me that it is probably the most peaceful and least judgmental religion in the world. There are temples, shrines, and golden Buddhas everywhere in the city, and it is common to see orange-cloaked, often barefoot monks walking through the streets or worshiping at the temples. In one temple I visited, I saw a posting that read, “The Holy Buddha: Buddha irradiates the wonderful energies of HEAING, LUCK, ABUNDANCE, AND HAPPINESS ETERNALLY.” Who wouldn’t want that? It seems that this belief system has influenced the entire culture in Thailand and that there is also a strong sense of karma: people are kind, helpful, and always minding their own business, unless needed to lend a hand, which they willingly do, no questions asked nor expectations of anything in return.

Supposedly it brings good luck to rub a Budda's big belly. I'll take some of that, thank you very much!

Supposedly it brings good luck to rub a Budda’s big belly. I’ll take some of that, thank you very much!

At first, I was skeptical. Being that I am fair-skinned, female, and alone, I don’t exactly blend in; in contrast, I could be considered an obvious target, especially because I don’t speak the language. I was mentally prepared for this and ready to get some karate chops going and “hi-YAH” anyone who tried to mess with me if my first line of defense–the “don’t even think about it” look–wasn’t enough. I am laughing about it now as I write this because while I got used to living “on guard” in Central America, here, I haven’t gotten a single cat call nor have I been harassed in any manner. People are extremely respectful, and I feel very safe. It also doesn’t seem to be a place where the public degradation of women is acceptable. You can pretty much just chill out, and you’ll likely make an immediate best friend everywhere you go.

Another cultural trend is one relating to shoes and footwear. First of all, the majority of the people I saw in Bangkok (as well as other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia thus far) where very simple footwear such as flip-flops or other sandals, crocs, slip-ons or basic sneakers on a daily basis, even when they are working. In order for people to enter temples, homes, spas, massage parlors, and certain other buildings, it is often required that they remove their shoes and leave them outside. It would be rude to walk in with your shoes on. It makes sense that most people choose shoes that are easy to get on and off! Again, I didn’t really trust leaving my flip-flops outside everywhere I went in a pile of shoes. I thought for sure they would either be stolen or mistaken (or swapped!) for another person’s sandals, but so far so good. Thievery is not a prevalent lifestyle in this particular part of the world whereas the honor system seems to be understood and implemented by all.

Here is a great example of both the types of foorwear people use AND how it is custom to remove shoes before enetering certain places. I still have my sandals so far!

Here is a great example of both the types of foorwear people use AND how it is custom to remove shoes before enetering certain places. I still have my sandals so far!

Because of how this city seems to have been founded on the principles of peace, karma, and honor, it was shocking for many to hear of or witness the bombing that took place at the Erawan Shrine in Bangok just this past Monday that killed over 20 people and injured at least 120 more. Violence and harm do not linger in Bangkok’s city air as they do in other places; Thai authorities say that whoever was responsible for the bombing acted from a place of malice, aiming to kill innocent people. They still do not know where the root of the incident lies–whether it came from a political/terrorist/religious group or someone else, however, it has definitely had a negative impact on tourism, which is the driving force of the Thai economy.

Just outside the temple Wat Traimit in Bangkok sit enormous golden Buddhist-themed statues, stretching toward the heavens, but with a protective spirit for the people.

Just outside the temple Wat Traimit in Bangkok sit enormous golden Buddhist-themed statues, stretching toward the heavens, but with a protective spirit for the people.

The whole thing has been very sad; it is such a shame that people would be that selfish and cruel. I had been out of Bangkok for about a week and a half already when the bombing happened, and while the Erawan Shrine is a major attraction for tourists and a revered place of worship for locals, I had not visited it. I was intending to make Bangkok my hub or base city for this trip because it is the easiest place to get in and out of when flying to other countries in the area and it is also a good place to go for a “city refresh” after bouncing around jungles and islands and dirt roads. I also still haven’t seen one or two of the Bangkok hotspots, which I was reserving for one of my return trips. With the recent developments, however, I may reformulate my plan and stay away for a while to see how things play out in Bangkok moving forward following the bombing.

Similar to how Catholics may walk into a church and acknowlegde the crucifix at the front behind the altar, Buddhists enter temples and spend a few minutes giving honor and thanks to Buddha.

Similar to how Catholics may walk into a church and acknowlegde the crucifix at the front behind the altar, Buddhists enter temples and spend a few minutes giving honor and thanks to Buddha.

Bangkok is an amazing city. It is grandiose. As the capital of Thailand, it has been referred to as the “Megawatt City of Excess.” It is similar to San Francisco in that it is loosely separated into various districts within the city, yet connected by an amazing public transportation system involving trains, subways, and buses. I was so impressed by the systems and the cleanliness of the city. It is modern and busy but technology has not driven out the traditional ways of life and it almost seems as if the old and new function interdependently with each other. For example, every morning street food vendors set up right outside the Skytrain and Metro station stops in the financial sector of the city, ready to sell pre-prepared and portioned fresh fruit and lunch meals to the sharply dressed business men and women who are rushing to their jobs in tall office buildings. Both sides benefit as the street vendors solve the issue of a lack of time [to prepare healthy meals] for the hurried office workers who in turn enhance the income of those with less education/less economic opportunity/etc. Great system.

The busy business sector of Bangkok has the typical office building and traffic congestion of any big city.

The busy business sector of Bangkok has the typical office building and traffic congestion of any big city.

Lining the lanes around the corner  from the big city bustle are smaller shops and street vendors. This lady is a tailor and has her sewing machine right out on the sidewalk in front of her shop, fixing up a hole in one of my t-shirts.

Lining the lanes around the corner from the big city bustle are smaller shops and street vendors. This lady is a tailor and has her sewing machine right out on the sidewalk in front of her shop, fixing up a hole in one of my t-shirts.

Another commendable system in Bangkok is transportation. I don’t know how many times I will continue to rave about the Skytrain and Metro systems here, but my appreciation for them was instant. There is an “Airport Link” that will take anyone directly from the airport to any number of connecting transportation stations. There are two “Skytrain” tracks that run through different parts of the city, plus another “MRT” (Metro) track that intersects with both of the Skytrain routes. It is so easy to get anywhere in the city using this system! And it is inexpensive. There are pay stations that dispense tickets or tokens with the exact value to get you to your destination. The trains are air-conditioned and relatively spacious. The stations are designed to be straightforward and it is an absolute breeze to get around. No smoking, no eating, and no stinky fruits allowed on the train–those rules are enforced and abided by pretty much everyone. At the end of the line, no one is allowed on the train until the train workers sweep the entire train. Lastly, people are considerate enough not to pee on the public train–unlike some people who ride BART in the Bay Area. It is a delight to be on public transportation that doesn’t stink.

The orderly systems of the Metro in Bangkok are impressive: glass doors barricading the tracks, floor markings indicating the direction of getting on and off the train, and an easy-to-use maps and tokens system.

The orderly systems of the Metro in Bangkok are impressive: glass doors barricading the tracks, floor markings indicating the direction of getting on and off the train, and an easy-to-use maps and tokens system.

People are really good about keeping things tidy and sweeping often, use brooms like these, pictured in a small shop on a busy street in Chinatown (Bangkok).

People are really good about keeping things tidy and sweeping often, use brooms like these, pictured in a small shop on a busy street in Chinatown (Bangkok).

In addition to the public train system, there are many other convenient transportation systems in Bangkok including public buses, private taxis, and tuk tuks. Most local people drive around in vehicles just like we have in the States. There aren’t very many SUVs out here, but I’ve seen a few. What is more common are motorcycles and motorbike scooters. They are everywhere and I have seen just as many women riding them around as I have seen men on them. Motorbikes are available to rent as are bicycles, however, walking is my preferred method of transportation for now. I trust my feet. Maybe I’ll rent a motorbike when I get out to an island where there is more space, but there are just too many people around here for an amateur to learn how to ride a motorbike. And after losing my borrowed bike to the riverbanks, I’m also passing on the bicycles for now. Plus, walking around is good exercise and a great way to get oriented in any city. If I need to go a farther distance, I will opt to use the bubblegum pink Toyota Corolla taxis; tuk tuk drivers are known for charging “tourists” double the price whereas the shiny pink taxis are metered. Plus, they are air-conditioned and when else am I going to have the opportunity to cruise around in a hot pink car?

At every intersection, motorbikes and motorcycles slide up in front of all the other cars so they are the first ones out when the light turns green.

At every intersection, motorbikes and motorcycles slide up in front of all the other cars so they are the first ones out when the light turns green.

Bubblegum pink Toyota Corolla metered and air-conditioned are definitely the way to ride through Bangkok in luxury, style, and safety--well, if you are a backpacker on a budget, at least!

Bubblegum pink Toyota Corolla metered and air-conditioned are definitely the way to ride through Bangkok in luxury, style, and safety–well, if you are a backpacker on a budget, at least!

In regard to the language, first of all, Thai spoken language sounds lovely and the written form is elegant and swirly, a series of symbols more than letters, however many signs translate the symbols into letters that help with pronunciation. I tried to learn some of the vocabulary from a phrasebook I brought with me, but I am butchering practically everything I attempt to say. In Thai, five words can have the exact same spelling, but have different meanings depending on the tone that is used (high, medium, low, rising, or falling) in pronouncing them. It is all about intonation which can be confusing, difficult, or even embarrassing if you say the wrong word. Asian languages are hard! When I first arrived, I went through a phase of getting the urge to speak in Spanish because that is my second-nature foreign language communication tool, but that urge went away quickly as Spanish won’t get me very far here. Having a second language is like a magic tool that makes you feel competent; unfortunately I am feeling slightly ill-equipped without the language skills and having to rely on other forms of communication (which isn’t a bad thing to practice). I at least got the phrase “thank you” down, for the most part; that’s an important one to know.

To my relief, I found in Bangkok that almost all public signs, menus, prices, and informational brochures are written in both Thai and English. I stand in awe of the Thai government and its brilliance: not only are they catering to English speakers who often visit Bangkok for the purpose of business or tourism, but they are simultaneously teaching their own people English, if only just a little at a time. I am so impressed. And because of this, it is very easy to get around the city. An interesting observation I made related to this is that English speakers are not the only visitors to Thailand; people come from all over the world, from every continent, but they do not seem to have a problem getting around here–guess why not? In addition to their primary languages, people all over the world are learning to speak English as well. Europeans usually speak minimum 3 languages, Chinese and Indian people speak English (if they attended school), and in Australia, they are starting to teach Chinese in school. My prediction is that English, Spanish, and Chinese are going to be the top three universal languages in no time. It is amazing that people all over the world are becoming equipped with a second language in our global economy. In my opinion, it is a survival skill that gives anyone an edge over someone who knows only one language. (No pressure.)

Technology abounds in this forward-thinking environment and I was a little surprised to see that the majority of people use smartphones (but mostly iPhones). While the people are very friendly, I can already see that the younger generation is developing a dependency on their phones for social interaction. When I first boarded the Skytrain leaving the airport, I noticed that probably 90% of the people in the train were looking down at their phones, texting, reading, or playing a game. It amazed me that I could be in close quarters with so many people on this train and not feel like I could approach or initiate conversation with any of them because they were all blocking social interaction by use of their phones. I know this is happening in many other parts of the world as well, but it was so blatant that they didn’t even notice me snapping photos of them.

Thailand keeps up with technology, too! Smartphones are replacing social interaction even in crowded public places, like the Skytrain in Bangkok.

Thailand keeps up with technology, too! Smartphones are replacing social interaction even in crowded public places, like the Skytrain in Bangkok.

On that note, I’d like to quickly highlight another form of technology that is sweeping the Asian continent: the selfie stick. I did purchase one of my own from Amazon.com shortly before I left for my trip; my step dad encouraged me saying that they wanted to see me in some of my photos and that with a selfie stick, I wouldn’t have to hand off my phone to someone else to take a picture of me. However, although I tote it along occasionally in my daypack, I feel really awkward taking it out and messing with it and posing. I goofed off with it a little before I left with my friends Roberta and Dan and we had fun figuring it out and taking silly photos, but it’s not as fun when I’m by myself. In contrast to how I feel, people here have absolutely no qualms about pulling out their selfie sticks and taking pictures of themselves everywhere they go. Chinese tourists are the most shameless which goes hand-in-hand with that stereotype we all have about them with their cameras taking pictures of everything. I watch them all, intrigued by the obvious cultural differences, slightly amused, and also curious about what it would take to get me to bust out my selfie stick more often.

Selfie sticks are everywhere!! This Indian man is capturing himself with an image of a Golden Buddha from the temple right behind him.

Selfie sticks are everywhere!! This Indian man is capturing himself with an image of a Golden Buddha from the temple right behind him.

Selfie sticks are the hot new trend around the world (but especially in Asia). This counter at the MBK Center in Bangkok offers them in practically any color a person could want. So many options!

Selfie sticks are the hot new trend around the world (but especially in Asia). This counter at the MBK Center in Bangkok offers them in practically any color a person could want. So many options!

Beyond that, the people in Bangkok just seemed so stylish, yet nonchalant about it. From enormous shopping malls to busy markets, people have access to pretty much anything they want or need. Maybe too much access. There is a shopping center in the middle of the city that can be considered a tourist attraction in and of itself. I went and checked it out because I was curious and I was utterly fascinated by the 7-story mall with a movie theater and arcade on the top level, a food court on the 5th floor offering just about any type of food from around the world that you could crave, two Dairy Queens, and shops and stalls that had so many items in them that you could hardly walk through the space. Not tempted by the “stuff” in the least, I opted for a pedicure instead that cost me a $8 US, including tip; I was happy I waited to get to Thailand for that–it was less than half the price we pay in the States and the lady did a great job!

The 7-story shopping mall, MBK Center, was almost like a theme park with all the colors, people, and even escalators to get people from one floor/side to the next.

The 7-story shopping mall, MBK Center, was almost like a theme park with all the colors, people, and even escalators to get people from one floor/side to the next.

Dairy Queen - yum, YUM! (That was for you, Gram!) This was the second Dairy Queen I came across in the MBK Center.

Dairy Queen – yum, YUM! (That was for you, Gram!) This was the second Dairy Queen I came across in the MBK Center.

In addition to just enjoying being in a new city, I did get out to do some tourist stuff. To be honest, I don’t always enjoy going to the tourist hotspots because that is not where you see the real people of a city and how a city really functions. Luckily for me, I made a new friend when I was strolling through the great big Lumphini Park close to where I was staying. Kristin was also strolling through the park, having just arrived in Thailand earlier that afternoon. She was just starting a 3-week organized group tour of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but technically she came by herself. While she has lived abroad, traveled on her own, and worked in Public Health (all things we have in common), she is a nurse in San Diego now and had slightly limited vacation time so opted for a pre-arranged tour. After the walk through the park, we split up for the evening, but made a plan to reunite the following morning to spend the day together before she had to meet up with her tour group.

I was so happy to have a friend–a real, live person who actually wanted to talk to me and could carry on a conversation!! It was wonderful. Five days of one-sided or very short conversations was a long time for Lil Miss Talkative over here to go. I spent my quiet time getting acclimated and organized so I figured socialization could be a great treat–and it was. I didn’t even care where we went, I was just happy to go with someone. We compared the guidebooks with her tour and decided on a couple big places in the city that were not on her itinerary with the group: the temples Wat Pho and Wat Arun and Chinatown. Bangkok has a lot of temples and the majority of them house golden Buddhas and have some neat architecture. Wat Pho is home to the largest Reclining Buddha in Thailand and Wat Arun is known for its Emerald Buddha (however the main temple wasn’t open so we missed the Buddha, but wandered around the rest of the grounds). It was really hot that day so we took frequent breaks from “touristing” to chit chat in the shade, sip Thai iced teas, and snack on street food from the market.

The achitecture and design of the temples and statues in Thailand is detailed and unique. This structure is at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

The achitecture and design of the temples and statues in Thailand is detailed and unique. This structure is at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Kristin and I stopped by the temple Wat Pho to take a look at the gigantic Reclining Buddha. Reclining Buddhas illustrate the passing of Buddha into nirvana (a.k.a. end of life). The largest in the country, this Reclining Buddha is 15 meters high and 46 meters long; it's slightly distorted, but you can see his feet down in the bottom right corner.

Kristin and I stopped by the temple Wat Pho to take a look at the gigantic Reclining Buddha. Reclining Buddhas illustrate the passing of Buddha into nirvana (a.k.a. end of life). The largest in the country, this Reclining Buddha is 15 meters high and 46 meters long; it’s slightly distorted, but you can see his feet down in the bottom right corner.

When we were finished with temples, we decided to wander through Chinatown to feel it out and find something good to eat. We quickly found out that right on the outskirts of Bangkok’s Chinatown lie an “Arabia-town” and an “India-town” as well. After a delicious meal at Royal India that we shared, we continued to stroll through the markets and discovered that Chinatown–jam-packed with markets and noises and big red and gold banners and signs all over the streets–is definitely not as clean as the business sector of Bangkok that I was getting used to. While trying to block out the unpleasant smells of dried fish, fresh meat, and rotting garbage in streets and vendor stalls, we both reminisced of prior favorite market experiences as we took in the intoxicating aromas of fresh flowers, incense, and spices that permeated the market air.

After expolring the city and some of its temples together, Kristin and I shared a fabulous meal at Royal India, a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant with a great reputation in the middle of Chinatown. It was really nice to have a companion for the day. Meals are so much better shared!

After expolring the city and some of its temples together, Kristin and I shared a fabulous meal at Royal India, a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant with a great reputation in the middle of Chinatown. It was really nice to have a companion for the day. Meals are so much better shared!

I was so grateful for Kristin and her companionship that day. Kristin was on her own healing/reflection journey during this trip and I appreciated that she opened up to me and shared some of her story with me. For some reason, people seem to be more open when traveling. There are no titles or responsibilities or expectations or material items interfering with a person’s identity–it’s literally just the person and maybe a self-sustaining backpack or piece of luggage. There is nothing blocking them and little if any fear of judgment while experiencing the freedom of travel. While Kristin and I parted ways when she needed to go meet with her group, we have kept in touch via email as I am sort of following the path she went through Southeast Asia. (I’m just moving through much more slowly.) She has been sending me updates and guiding me to things she thought were worth doing. A few days after the day we spent together, I was totally missing my new friend, but all the activity of my hostel dorm room kept me entertained at least for the rest of the week.

Staying in hostel dorm rooms can be a hit or miss, but there exists the opportunity to meet some interesting people. I want to include a snippet here (and this is the only time I will give this kind of detail of a hostel dorm room) because it contributed to the overall experience and illustrates how Bangkok is a multi-purposed and colorful city. In the 7 nights I stayed at S1 Hostel, this is a rundown of my situation, who shared the room with me, and the interactions I had with them:

Night #1) A German girl waiting for her sister to arrive the following day so they could move into the apartment they were going to share in Bangkok for the next 6 months while they both worked their separate internships; another girl came in late and left early the next morning.

Night #2) A black girl who came in after I was asleep, was sleeping when I got up, and was gone by the time I returned from the activities I was out doing. We didn’t speak, therefore I don’t know if she was African, American, neither, or both. No offense intended.

Night #3) A 32-year-old Thai woman named “Nok” whose 50-year-old Dutch ex-pat husband was drinking too much that night so she decided to get away from him to avoid a fight. They have been married two years and he retired early to move to Thailand when he married her. She came with very little and stayed in a dorm room–as opposed to a private room–because she was afraid to sleep alone.We had great conversation and she shared some tips for travel with me, websites I could check out, bus prices and stations, stuff like that. I worked from the room that evening instead of from the rooftop lounge.

Night #4) I had the room all to myself! Woo-hoo!!

Night #5) Stephanie, a gregarious 25-year-old from Singapore, had just completed a two-week Musical Arts Workshop hosted by the US Embassy in Thailand and she was en route back to her home. We chatted for a while in English (I learned that although Malay is the “official” language of Singapore for historical purposes, English is actually the primary language that is taught there–Stephanie’s first language) and we may or may not have broken out into song once or twice… If I make it to Singapore for a couple days during this trip, she offered to show me some great places to eat while I’m there. We’re Facebook friends now.

Night #6) A very stinky American girl. I know nothing about her. As soon as I returned from my afternoon outing, I was practically stinked out of the room. I showered as fast as I could and retreated to my rooftop lounge sanctuary for the remainder of the evening. (Luckily she had showered by the time I came in to go to bed so it was manageable.)

Night #7) This was the busiest night with a total of five girls in a 6-bunk dorm, which made me very happy that I was leaving the next day. I actually had a conversation with the American girl from the night before and found out that she had just arrived to study abroad for the semester through her university in Idaho. Another woman from Oregon had been vacationing in Burma/Myanmar and was flying home the next day. (Flights out of Bangkok are the best/easiest/cheapest.) Then a really cool girl named Courtney showed up and we clicked within 30 seconds and couldn’t stop talking. From Kentucky, she has been living in Thailand (on Ko Samui island) teaching kindergarten for a couple years now. I knew she knew the local ways and we had had similar life experiences so there was almost immediate trust. She has been in touch with me since we met, sharing tips and tricks, guiding me along as I go. The last girl in the room was Courtney’s friend who had just arrived to visit and travel with her for a couple weeks; Courtney was only staying in the hostel that night to pick up her friend from the airport before they started their adventure.

Clearly you can see that hostels serve many purposes for many people, not just for backpackers. While most people were just passing through, I made it my temporary home. I guess you could say I became friends with the staff, even though we didn’t really speak much. But early every morning, two teenage girls would come up to the rooftop to water the garden and sweep and I loved watching them play and chase each other around with the big caterpillars (invasive species) they would find on the plants. The staff was very warm to me. If/when I do go back to Bangkok, I will likely stay in this place again. I became familiar with the area, I felt safe, and I liked the people. It’ll be a good re-set place to get my bearings, do some laundry, and re-civilize, per se. Bangkok is a vibrant city with so much to do and so many hidden treasures. I don’t feel that a handful of paragraphs do this city justice, but it is enough for now.

Many places in Bangkok are neater and cleaner than I expected and even the tuk-tuks are stylish!

Many places in Bangkok are neater and cleaner than I expected and even the tuk-tuks are stylish!

TRAVEL TIP: Patience. In the case that a language barrier exists, have patience first with yourself and second with the people to whom you are trying to speak. If the words aren’t working out, speak with your eyes and use other forms of communication such as hand gestures or drawings. Don’t get frustrated and don’t rush. Be forgiving and laugh at yourself and/or the situation; it will make things better, trust me. If you are patient and engage with the locals, they will do their best to help you in some way and they will know through your eyes and smile that you are grateful and sincere. Smile often–it lets people know that you are open to connecting (and it’s okay if they’re not open, not everyone will be). Lastly, rushing and giving off any sense of fear or desperation will make you an easy target because people can sense that. When you are in a frantic state, the probability of you losing something, getting pick-pocketed or robbed, or being overcharged for an item/service/ride significantly increases. Give yourself plenty of time to get places and plenty of options in case Plans A, B, and C don’t work out. Fretting won’t get you very far. Just be patient and go with the flow.

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Costa Rica

Please note that I am NOT in Costa Rica right now. This story is a recap of my experience there when I was backpacking through Central America in 2013. Just want to avoid any possible confusion as I am weaving multiple stories together through one forum. I’m still in Thailand for now.

Also, heads up: this is a long one. I didn’t expect it to get so long, but I never really know how these chapters are going to turn out until each one is finished.

—–

It was sometime in the middle of September when I arrived in Costa Rica and nearing the end of my backpacking trip, with only 15 days left to play, I decided I would spend all 15 days in Costa Rica instead of trying to squeeze Panama into that so I could take my time with Costa Rica. But instead, my time was taken. Good thing I didn’t have an itinerary. Here is a tale of one of the downsides of traveling in the developing world and how I spent the first 9 days in Costa Rica.

As per usual, upon arrival to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, I wanted to get out of it as soon as possible because the capital cities in Central America are busy and known for having the highest crime rates. I booked a bus ticket leaving the next day for the Monteverde region in the north, Costa Rica’s famous cloud forest destination, then found lodging for the night.

At dinner, I was feeling slightly nauseated and pretty much lost my appetite. And by the time I was boarding the bus the next day, I had broken out in fever and chills. Fever and chills are usually indicative of a bacterial infection so I prepared myself for the worst and kept an extra bag handy for the 4-hour bus ride, during which my head was pounding, my joints were aching, and my stomach was in knots. Upon arrival in Santa Elena, a town in the Monteverde region, I barely had enough energy to walk to the lodge, Pensíon Santa Elena, and when I arrived, I pretty much went straight to bed after alerting the staff that I thought I was coming down with something. I hadn’t yet purchased a SIM card for Costa Rica so I couldn’t call home and my room didn’t have an electrical outlet so I couldn’t charge my computer (and there was nothing that could get me out of bed to guard my laptop in a public space as it charged). I just lied there, weak and achy all over, trying to sleep it off.

The next day was worse. Complete loss of appetite and weaker than before. I think I took one bite of food all day. When the guy at the front desk checked on me and saw the progression of the sickness, he suggested that it might be dengue fever so I tried to get down as much liquid as I could take, knowing that the risk associated with dengue fever is low blood pressure and dehydration. Finally, partially delirious, I opened my computer and called my sister’s cell phone with Skype credit to let her know where I was and that I was really sick. (Didn’t want to freak out the parents!) I have to admit that I was scared and cried a little bit to big sis, and her response was to just make a joke to get me laughing. She had never heard of dengue fever before, as it is not very common in the developed world.

What IS dengue fever?? Dengue is a virus that is transmitted through mosquitoes that bite during the daytime (as opposed to malaria-transmitting dawn and dusk biters). From what I recall from Peace Corps health lessons, the dengue-transmitting mosquito species have black and white spotted legs–if you look closely, you really can see the leg segment coloring. Currently, there is no vaccination to prevent dengue and there is no medicine to get rid of it; treatment consists of resting, staying hydrated, and letting it run its course, which takes on average about 10 days. There is an incubation period of 1-2 weeks before the virus shows its full-blown effect; that one day that I got sick and vomited in Nicaragua was 8 days prior and very likely the onset and first sign of the sickness. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, body aches–especially behind the eyes and in the joints, low blood pressure, dehydration, and, in extreme cases, depending on the strength of a person’s immune system and the level of dehydration, hemorrhagic bleeding in the body which, in severe situations, can lead to death. This is a common disease in tropical, underdeveloped nations and a leading cause of disease-related mortality.

Lucky for me, I was quickly introduced to the Emergency Medical Services team in Santa Elena and also, my symptoms only included the weakness and body aches, loss of appetite for about 3 days, a decline in my blood platelet level, and eventually low blood pressure. My health insurance covered all costs, and the medical team took me under their wing and monitored me daily, checking my blood pressure and arranging for multiple trips down to the lab in the beach town, Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast side two hours away from Santa Elena. At the lab, they attempted blood samples but couldn’t get anything out of my arms so they pricked my finger instead and scraped it against a tiny vile about 100 times each time until they had enough to test the platelet count. Ouch!! Unfortunately, this was the case for all of my visits…

A normal blood platelet count for a human is between 150,000 and 500,000 units/microliter. Dengue causes a significant decrease in platelet count which is why the low blood pressure and internal bleeding can occur. If a person’s platelet count drops below 100,000 units/microliter, it is likely that he or she will be admitted to the hospital and hooked up to an IV. The lowest mine got was 109,000 units/microliter, before it started rising again. In an attempt to keep myself OUT of the hospital, I gulped down as much fluid as I could take mixed with oral rehydration packets every single day that week. I like to think it was a contributing factor to a quick recovery.

The medical team in Santa Elena, Guido, Karoline, and Andréa, was AMAZING and they practically became my best friends for the week since I hung out with them everyday. I was so grateful for the care they provided. It wasn’t anything fancy and I was subjected to many uncomfortable needle pokes, but I survived and felt like I was in great hands with them.

When I started getting my energy back and was feeling better all around, I had one last visit with them, but my insanely low blood pressure of 90/45 was not convincing enough for them to let me off and they decided to hook me up to an IV anyway. Bad idea. My veins do not liked to be poked and they tend to go into hiding as soon as they see a needle coming. And this was a fat needle. First, they tried both of my arms in the typical spots near the elbow joint. Nothing. Next was the mid-forearm on both arms. Nothing again. After that, they moved to the back of my left hand! And when that was useless, they headed to my left foot and ankle and stuck me with a huge freakin’ needle!!! Holy moly-that hurt!! It was complete torture! Trying to hold my foot still as the rest of my body was writhing in pain and my tears were flowing freely, I begged them to stop trying. I couldn’t take any more. And the needle was just not going to go in. Through wimpering and tears, I pleaded, “I’ll drink a whole gallon of fluid to get my blood pressure up, just please, no more needles!” They finally stopped, not wanting to inflict any more pain on me and also noting that was energy level was picking back up.

Needless to say, I was very glad when that whole ordeal was over. I have tiny scars from the needle pokes that serve as a reminder of that experience, and from now on, extreme vigilance regarding mosquito bite prevention is a necessity as anyone who has had dengue once can be more susceptible to the effects of it if they get it again.

Finally I was free to explore Costa Rica’s biggest treasure: its wildlife. I started with what was right down the street–a bat habitat. The educational tour followed by observing the bats was really cool and although I don’t remember everything at this point, there were a lot of fun facts relating to the anatomy and physiology of these funny-looking, big-eared, scrunchy-faced flying mammals. While people have been conditioned to be afraid of them, they are actually pretty harmless as the majority of bats eat fruit and insects and the notorious vampire bats actually prey on cow’s blood, not typically humans. And their giant wrinkly ears are perfectly designed to make the bats’ sonar radar/echo location abilities the most efficient as possible. Bats are so good at locating anything that even if you are standing in the middle of a small entrance to a cave at dusk and hundreds or thousands of bats fly out of the cave to go in search for food, if you just stand still, the probability that a bat will fly into you or even touch you is practically nonexistent. They are that good.

Most countries print their currency with images of prominent people or historical figures; Costa Rica is unique in printing images of its wildlife--the country's biggest treasure--on its money.

Most countries print their currency with images of prominent people or historical figures; Costa Rica is unique in printing images of its wildlife–the country’s biggest treasure–on its money.

Santa Elena actually had a lot of animal/creature habitat exhibits right in the middle of town so visitors could take their pick of what they wanted to observe. Some of the options included insects, snakes, reptiles, butterflies, and frogs; I selected the frog habitat as I have had a special love of frogs since I was a child and, let me tell you, I sure felt like a kid again as soon as I entered the exhibit because there were so many types of frogs, each with its own biological adaptation for survival including camouflage ability, special warning markings (like the blue and red poison dart frog), and particularly sticky feet for special climbing (like the red-eyed tree frog that spends most if its life in trees as opposed to living in/near pools of water). I felt so lucky to see Costa Rica’s famous red-eyed leaf (tree) frog, up close and personal! Isn’t he cute?

The well-known Red-Eyed Leaf/Tree Frog closes its eyes and tucks its legs close to its body, covering it's blue and yellow striped sides, to camouflage itself with leaves.

The well-known Red-Eyed Leaf/Tree Frog closes its eyes and tucks its legs close to its body, covering it’s blue and yellow striped sides, to camouflage itself to blend in with the leaves.

That night I went on an organized night hike through the jungle and we also had great luck with what we spotted. Rainforests hold so much mystery. The quiet and stillness they display during the daytime can be so deceiving in regards to how much life they hold–they come alive after dark! At the very beginning of the hike, we saw a two-toed sloth hanging around up in the branches, and that was followed by a sleeping Emerald Toucanet and several sleeping rainbow-billed toucans (like Toucan Sam of Fruit Loops!). We interrupted an orange-kneed tarantula (see photo) in the middle of her nightly shenanigans, and we also came across rats, an owl, frogs, leaf-cutter ants, insects, spiders, a giant snail, and two green vipers, a young one and an adult–one of the deadliest venomous snakes in the world. The rule of thumb in the rainforest is, “If you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you.” Of course accidents happen and instigators exist, but generally speaking, the jungle is safe if you exercise common sense and WATCH where you are going; however, it usually tends to get the best of people who are careless or disrespectful.

An Orange-Kneed Tarantula finding her sanctuary in some old piping in the jungle.

An Orange-Kneed Tarantula finding her sanctuary in some old piping in the jungle.

In addition to a bunch of other sleeping birds perched high up in the trees (which made me wonder how they stay balanced and keep from falling off the branches while they’re dreaming!), we spotted the most spectacular bird of the jungle, the bird I had been waiting to see for two and a half years: the Resplendent Quetzal. Granted he was sleeping and it was dark, but a spotting is a spotting.

The Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala; the national currency, a type of rum made only in Guatemala (Quetzalteca), and an entire department (equivalent to a state or county) in Guatemala, “Quetzaltenango,” are all named after this bird. The Quetzal used to be more prevalent, however, its natural habitat has been encroached upon and it has been hunted as well for its famous long bluish-green tail feathers so the birds are few and far between nowadays; even in the few Quetzal Reserve parks in the country, to spot one would be considered lucky.

I didn’t have much on my “bucket list” for being in Central America, but seeing a Resplendent Quetzal was one thing on the list. Costa Rica was pretty much the last opportunity I had to see it so when it happened, I took it as a sign that I could go home at that point. It was almost a way to honor Guatemala one last time before I left. I also took it as a secondary sign that the tables were turning on my bad luck and good things were starting to happen and would continue that way for the remainder of my trip.

The next morning, I headed out to the Curi-Cancha Reserve, one of the large, protected areas of cloud forest in the Monteverde region, to take a day hike and I was the only person who signed up for the tour so I had a personalized guide, Melvin, all to myself. We saw mostly flying things that day including belbirds, Blue Morpho butterflies, a beautiful Emerald Toucanet, and hummingbirds. (I learned that hummingbirds are only found in the Americas.) We also saw frogs, tadpoles, squirrels, tuanis, and white-nosed coatis–which are about the size of raccoons–scampering around the forest floor.

Last but not least, we spotted FOUR more Resplendent Quetzals!! Two females and two males. The females do not have the vibrant, multi-coloring or long tail feathers that that males have; instead, the teal-colored females make their selection of mate based on which male has the brightest colors and longest tail feathers, signifying evolutionary “fitness,” a.k.a. good for baby-making, indicating a higher probability that their offspring will be healthy and survive to reproduce. (Evolutionarily speaking, becoming a grandparent is the highest form of achievement; it means your work is done, that your genes will continue to live on in the world.) The male quetzals start growing their tail feathers before mating season, and at the end of the season, the tail feathers fall out naturally, and they will grow new ones the following year. We stalked these quetzals for probably a solid hour and tried to get as many photos as possible. I was jumping for joy at this organic display of bird behavior in nature. It made mine–and Melvin’s–day.

The male Resplendent Quetzal, with his growing tail feathers, perched high up in the beanches of an avocado tree. (This photo was taken through the lens of binoculars.)

The male Resplendent Quetzal, with his growing tail feathers, perched high up in the beanches of an avocado tree. (This photo was taken through the lens of binoculars.)

Costa Rica is a relatively easy country to get around in because tourism is such a large part of the economy and now, the culture as well. Many Costa Ricans speak English and are used to dealing with people who don’t speak any Spanish; they were shocked that as a very white American girl, I spoke fluent Spanish, but I have to say that speaking Spanish made it much easier for me to make friends there. On one hand, it was hard for me to be alone in Costa Rica: sometimes they wouldn’t run tours if only one person (me) had signed up, there were no single person discounts for private rooms so I basically had to pay double, and getting so sick by myself really sucked. On the other hand, September was a great time for me to be there as a single traveler because it was low season (due to the rain) and summer vacations were over so I ended up on several personalized tours and when I stayed in dorm rooms later on, I was often the only person in the room. It also gave me a great opportunity to continue my writing in peace and quiet.

In the afternoon after the morning of my nature hike, I made my next move and took jeep-boat-jeep transportation to a town called La Fortuna, arriving just before dusk. Volcano Arenal can be accessed from this town for anyone who wants a solid hike, but I was only staying the night there. I had a really cool dorm mate named Jerim, a white guy from Kenya, so we had dinner together and swapped stories; it was the first meal I had shared with anyone in the 11 days that I had been in Costa Rica so far so I was appreciative of the company. The following day I went on a white water rafting adventure that included transportation to the starting place, breakfast, all the gear, a 4-hour rafting trip through the jungle on the Rio Pacuare, lunch on the river, and transportation to another town at the end of the day. There were 4 people plus the guide on my raft and the rapids were Grades 3 and 4. It was both challenging and relaxing as we moved along the river, spotting toucans and enjoying the cloud forest canyon scenery. At one point, it even started pouring down rain, but it felt really good and, overall, the rafting trip was a cool thing to do for a day.

Crossing the lake to get to La Fortuna, Volcano Arenal can be seen in the distance.

Crossing the lake to get to La Fortuna, Volcano Arenal can be seen in the distance.

As soon as I got dropped off in Puerto Viejo, I knew I would stick around for a couple days. Puerto Viejo is the last major town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica before you can cross the southern border into Panama and it is the epitome of a beach town–easygoing, happy, friendly, with a major “Rasta” vibe and lots of reggae. I found affordable lodging right on the beach, practically ON the water. The dorm itself was built on top of a restaurant and wasn’t anything fancy, but it was so close to the water that nothing else mattered. I stayed a total of three nights there, most of the time as the only person in the room. It was awesome.

My first full day in Peurto Viejo was eventful to say the least. I decided to rent a beach cruiser [bicycle] for the day so I could better explore the area. There was a 7 kilometer “scenic ride” along the coast going south toward the border that was highly recommended so I figured that would be my leisurely activity for the day and I could stop at any of the little beach coves along the way if I wanted or eat at the restaurant at the end of the route if I was hungry enough. Feeling satisfied with my plan, I ventured off. Ten minutes later, I passed Adam–a guy whom I had met the day before–going the opposite way on his beach cruiser. We chatted a little bit and since he had no major plan for the day, he decided to join me on my exploration so we took off again.

Five minutes later, one of my tires popped! It was a convenient location to have a tire pop because we were a short walk away from a little store so we walked there, parked our bikes, called the bike rental place to let them know what had happened, and then scrounged around the store to see what snacks we could find. As we were munching away on our snacks and cocktails-in-a-can, the guys came and replaced my tire–the whole situation taking no more than about 20 minutes or so. A quick fix and we were on our way again!

On the side of the jungle-beach road, the guys from the bike shop came to replace my beach cruiser tire as I munched on plantain ships and sipped a cocktail-in-a-can.

On the side of the jungle-beach road, the guys from the bike shop came to replace my beach cruiser tire as I munched on plantain ships and sipped a cocktail-in-a-can.

Adam was in Costa Rica working in sea turtle conservation on an island off the Caribbean coast. This trip to the mainland was like a little vacation for him, a getaway from the rustic island conditions (no chocolate on the island!!), and he had only been in Costa Rica for a short time by that point so it was a nice opportunity for him to see what else Costa Rica was about. Originally from Arizona, he had studied Zoology in Florida (I think) and had a lot of experience with marine life and animal identification. At some points during the trip, not only was I appreciative of his friendship, but I also felt like I had my very own guide when it came to wildlife! Adam has been gallivanting around Central America and Mexico for the last couple years now and is still currently living and working in Costa Rica.

Once we hit the road again, not ten minutes later, dark clouds rolled in, the wind started blowing like crazy, and it started to downpour. Not just any little rain, this was a tropical thunderstorm with buckets of water just dumping from the sky. By this point, we had a decision to make: should we turn around, should we try to take cover somewhere, or should we just keep going? Being that it was only water and we were already getting wet anyway, we decided to push forward. First we paused to take off our dry t-shirts (being that we were on the beach, we were both practically living in our bathing suits anyway) and store them with our cameras in Adam’s dry bag, then we said, “Bring it on!” to the storm and rode on. Because I was still recuperating from my run with dengue, my energy level was lower than normal; I couldn’t go as fast as Adam, but he was patient and just let me move at the pace I could handle. It was really exciting to be riding through the storm, soaking wet, and trying to keep flying trees leaves and other things from obstructing our vision or our path. To this day, I look back at that ride and savor the memory of freedom, spontaneity, and adventure that we shared.

At the end of the 7 km ride, we came upon that restaurant and parked our bikes. But before we ate, we decided to go on a jungle hike through the last stretch of rainforest at the southern tip of Costa Rica; we probably could have walked into Panama from there, and maybe we did without even realizing it. Adam was on this hunt for his favorite type of snake–a yellow eyelash pit viper. I wasn’t too sure about that endeavor, but I figured he knew what he was doing. We ended up having to take off our flip-flops while walking through the jungle because they were way too slippery to maintain balance so we continued hiking for about 45 minutes barefoot! At the end of the “path,” instead of walking back through the jungle, we decided to descend to the “beach route” which didn’t entirely exist at high tide, leaving us to essentially rock climb across sea cliffs slightly above the ocean in a couple places. (Had we fallen, it would have been maybe 5-7 feet straight down into the water so it wasn’t particularly dangerous–I wouldn’t have done it alone, though!) When we finally got back to the restaurant, we shared a meal, tried to wait out the rain which by this point was just a dreary drizzle, then headed back to town. Being that the sun was going down and I was tired and slightly cold, our ride back was definitely not as fun as the ride down had been. But the full day experience was a memorable one for sure!

That evening, the electricity all across town had gone out for several hours due to the storm. When I went searching for a place to have dinner, I settled on one where I had my meal cooked on a gas stove and ate my dinner alone by candlelight; it reminded me of my Peace Corps days where I got used to setting my table for one, lighting a candle, and occasionally having some red wine in a plastic mug to accompany my meal. I think it’s important for people to learn to make “dinner dates with themselves” special (or any time spent alone). It’s ok to be alone and I think in this day and age with so many distractions and constant stimulation, being alone and happy with it is becoming a forgotten art.

The second-story deck at my lodge was the perfect place to write as it was the epitome of serenity.

The second-story deck at my lodge was the perfect place to write as it was the epitome of serenity.

The following day, Friday, was kind of an off day for me. I was feeling anti-social and wanting to be by myself so I spent the majority of the day writing and keeping a low profile. Eventually I headed into town to stroll around the Art Festival and I ended up getting a beautiful hair wrap with bead and shell decoration at the end. (I didn’t take this out for weeks when I got back to the States, much to the opposition of expectations to conform back to “civilized society” upon my return; to me, it represented my last piece of the wild and the freedom associated with it.) I ran into Adam again during the day and he invited me to go out later with another group of friends he had been hanging out with. I told him that I wasn’t really feeling up for it, but he stopped by my hostel anyway when the group was passing by later and, although I was already winding down and in my PJs, successfully pulled me out of my shell so I got dressed again and joined the group. I am grateful to him for doing this because otherwise I would have missed out on a beautiful cultural experience. A continuation of the Art Festival, that evening was filled with a busy market scene and performances of Costa Rica’s typical dance (an integral part of most places along the Caribbean), called Punta dancing–which involves very rapid hip shaking and foot movement to the beat of mesmerizing drums. I was totally entranced by the music and all the drumming. There were so many different types of drums and standing so close to them, I could feel the reverberations just pulsing through my body. It would have been difficult to stand among a performance like that and NOT be totally engaged and consumed by it.

The next day, Saturday, was another full one. I started it with a yoga session on the beach right outside the lodge, then met up with Adam after breakfast to go do some snorkeling. After that, we took a trip down to the Jaguar Rescue Center, an animal sanctuary that started out by rescuing jaguars and has evolved into a care center for all types of animals who are injured, broken, orphaned, or otherwise incapable of surviving on their own in the wild. Whenever possible, the caretakers rehabilitate the animals and prepare them for release back into wild; however, in some cases, the animal has permanent damage and will remain in the sanctuary for the rest of its life. On our guided tour, we saw everything from snakes to rodents, small mammals to insects, and birds to larger mammals, and we learned the backstory on most of the animals and how they came into the hands of the Rescue Center. Some of the animals were interactive with us at their own will, like “Tookie Tookie,” the mischievous toucan (named after the toucan in George of the Jungle) who followed us around, making little bouncy hops as opposed to steps to watch what we were all doing; Tookie Tookie has a reputation at the sanctuary for harmlessly antagonizing the other animals there; he has a chipped beak which would make it difficult for him to eat on his own in the jungle so he’ll be a “lifer” at the Rescue Center.

The mischievous Tookie Tookie is so nicely posing for a glamour shot here at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

The mischievous Tookie Tookie is so nicely posing for a glamour shot here at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

This is a Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper at the Jaguar Rescue Center. This is the venomous snake that Adam was searching for during our jungle hike. There is a part of me that was very happy that we didn't find one while we were out there...

This is a Yellow Eyelash Pit Viper at the Jaguar Rescue Center. This is the venomous snake that Adam was searching for during our jungle hike. There is a part of me that was very happy that we didn’t find one while we were out there…

There were many orphaned babies living and being raised at the sanctuary and for many of them, we were allowed to get up close and personal, without touching them. The baby three-toed sloths were my absolute favorite! Their faces are such that they look like they are smiling all the time. We got to watch them play for a couple minutes while our guide educated us on the lifestyle of these infamously lethargic jungle-hangers. Spending the majority of their lives in tree-top canopies, three-toed sloths descend once a week to defecate, courteously digging a hole with their tails and covering the place with leaves and sticks when they are finished. Their fur is amazing in that in it exists an entire ecosystem, home to small insects, bacteria, “sloth moths,” and algae–giving the fur its greenish-brown color. This is an example of mutualism, a form of symbiosis where the moths and other creatures benefit by having a home in the sloth’s fur while the sloth benefits from the moths whose presence facilitates the algae growth which serves as camouflage high up in the trees and is also an additional food source for the sloth, supplementing the otherwise leafy diet. Sloths can live 25-30 years and, unable to support themselves on all four limbs, they get around by using their long arms and claws to drag their lightweight bodies across the forest floor (when they descend from their trees).

The cutest baby Three-Toed Sloth I have ever seen!! Usually baby sloths cling to their mothers' bellies for 9 months after birth; as this little guy is an orphan, the guides stress the importance of keeping the babies warm and wrapped in towels/blankets whenever possible.

The cutest baby Three-Toed Sloth I have ever seen!! Usually baby sloths cling to their mothers’ bellies for 9 months after birth; as this little guy is an orphan, the guides stress the importance of keeping the babies warm and wrapped in towels/blankets whenever possible.

Here is a baby Three-Toed Sloth crawling down the structure to play for a little bit.

Here is a baby Three-Toed Sloth crawling down the structure to play for a little bit.

An orphaned baby monkey has found a mother-figure in one of the workers at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

An orphaned baby monkey has found a mother-figure in one of the workers at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

That afternoon, Adam gave me a surfing lesson that resulted in me getting slammed in the face by the surf board, but I appreciated the attempt anyway. I got back on with a swollen, bleeding bottom lip and managed to get up a couple times, but I quickly turned the board back over to him so he could make proper use of it. That evening, we strolled the market and munched on street food and gelato. Later, after dark when it was low tide, we grabbed a strong flashlight and headed out to the reef to do some serious tide-pooling. Besides the barely miss of stepping on a Scorpion Fish on the reef that would’ve landed Adam in the hospital, our venture was successful as we found sea cucumbers, crabs, shrimp, a baby moray eel, sea urchins, a brittle star, and not one, but TWO agile, iridescent octopi–my favorite!! I never would’ve gone out there by myself or known where to look to spot all these creatures so having my zoologist friend leading the way was awesome. In the days I was there in Puerto Viejo, Adam was probably the most patient, adventurous, and respectful companion that I could have come across and for that friendship, I am eternally grateful.

Adam and I enjoying meat kebabs and empanadas from the street vendors in Puerto Viejo.

Adam and I enjoying meat kebabs and empanadas from the street vendors in Puerto Viejo.

While I could have stayed in Puerto Viejo for my last night in Costa Rica, there was still one more town that interested me: Tortuguero, on the northern coast (Caribbean side) of Costa Rica. Although early October was the tail end of turtle season (when the females leave the ocean and crawl up on a beach to lay their eggs), there was still a chance that I might be able to see this phenomenon in person so I decided to go for it. I left super early in the morning and was traveling pretty much the entire day on all different kinds of crazy transportation. When I settled in to my spot, it was around 4:30 in the afternoon and I headed out to the beach to take a walk.

After walking for about 30 minutes, I saw a little commotion going on–two people and their Costa Rican “beach guide” were standing around something on the sand. I walked up to them and to my delight, a “clutch” of baby sea turtles were beginning to emerge from their sandy nest and make their way to the ocean to start their marine life. (From the time they hatch, it can take the babies up to a week to dig themselves out of the deep nest and make a run for the water.) In each nest, a mother turtle lays between 100-120 eggs; several weeks later, the babies hatch and between 90-95% of them make it to the ocean. From that point on, they are on their own, and only a tiny fraction from each nest survives to adulthood. It was so cute to watch them crawl on top of each other to get out, then race to the water. From getting out of the hole to reaching the sea, it only takes each little turtle about a minute or two; the natural instinct they have to get to the ocean if unbelievable. The whole ordeal from the first to the last turtle lasted maybe 7 minutes, then it was done. What luck to be able to witness that!

After hatching from their eggs about 3 feet below the surface of the sand, these baby turtles emerged as a sibling group to make their scurrying run for the ocean.

After hatching from their eggs about 3 feet below the surface of the sand, these baby turtles emerged as a sibling group to make their scurrying run for the ocean.

Only advised to touch baby turtles in an effort to redirect them if they cannot find their way to the ocean, I was lucky that I got to help this lost little guy. Unfortunately, he seemed very weak and I was not convinced that he would survive for very long, even once he got to the water.

Only advised to touch baby turtles in an effort to redirect them if they cannot find their way to the ocean, I was lucky that I got to help this lost little guy. Unfortunately, he seemed very weak and I was not convinced that he would survive for very long, even once he got to the water.

That evening, I paid for a guided tour to go out to where the mama turtles beach and we were blessed to be able to witness that process as well. These huge turtles, some weighing between 300-350 pounds, drag themselves up the beach, dig holes with their flippers that are 2-3 feet deep, then deposit their offspring–100 to 120 eggs at a time, often fertilized by multiple males–and make their way back to the ocean. This can usually take a turtle several hours to complete, and, boy, do they get “in the zone” during this process. The mama sea turtles are in a trance as they lay and it is important not to interrupt them because if they do get scared, they may go back to the ocean without finishing their “delivery.” We used infrared lights to observe them because the white lights bother them, and no photos or flashes were allowed. They pretty much just did their thing and ignored us, and we were quiet and gave them their space. I was so glad I made this trip!

My last

My last “typical” breakfast in Costa Rica: a fried egg, rice ‘n beans, fried plantains, and “natilla,” a kind of sour cream.

In the morning, I had one last yummy Costa Rican breakfast, then went on a canoe tour through the canals before leaving Tortuguero. The canoe tour was in the morning and we spotted iguanas, poison dart frogs (for real in the wild!), howler monkeys, a crocodile, toucans, herons, and a bunch of other birds. As you can tell, there was really no place in Costa Rica to be away from the wildlife. It was accessible everywhere! By the end of this trip, I had seen so many animals that my imagination was going crazy and I would look at a log, a plant, or a cloud and see a croc, a turtle, or a bird instead. After recovering from dengue, LUCK was the theme of my trip and I was in Biology heaven!

During the canoe tour through the canals, we passed growing bean plants, which are a favorite hangout and grazing spot for young iguanas, especially because of how well they can camouflage themselves. Can you spot it? Hint: If you divide the photo into 3 vertical sections, it is in the middle section. Good luck!

During the canoe tour through the canals, we passed growing bean plants, which are a favorite hangout and grazing spot for young iguanas, especially because of how well they can camouflage themselves. Can you spot it? Hint: If you divide the photo into 3 vertical sections, it is in the middle section. (Tap photo for enlargement.) Good luck!

Costa Rica was a neat place. I didn’t get to all the places I was interested in visiting, but I did what I could with the time I had. I was originally under the impression that Costa Rica was going to be more along the lines of a developed nation from what I had heard, but it is definitely still like the rest of Central America in many ways. Rustic and wild, but ever changing and oh-so-alive!

Outside the frog habitat, posing with the giant

Outside the frog habitat, posing with the giant “blue-jeaned” poison dart frog, I was on Cloud 9 to finally get access to the beautiful wildlife in Costa Rica!

From Costa Rica, I took a bus retracing the other countries I had visited until I made it back to Guatemala City. I spent one last week in Guatemala, visiting a few special people, tying up loose ends, and saying some goodbyes before I finally went back to the United States. I was finally ready to go home, but so grateful for those three months of travel that I had to process how things had happened in Guatemala both while I was living there as well as how my service ended. I could easily say that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip. (But here I am again on the other side of the world with only a backpack so maybe we can call this a twice-in-a-lifetime!)

Much love,

Alexandra

Backpacking Bonus 1: Welcome to the Jungle

In all these months of travel preparation, it wasn’t until I was on my second of three flights on my way to Thailand that I thought to myself, “What am I doing?” I bought a one-way ticket to a part of the world that I am unfamiliar with and I do not know the language at all. I had no itinerary nor an immediate plan for my arrival; I didn’t even have my lodging or transportation from the airport arranged. Oh, and I had no travel guidebook with me either this time because I didn’t want to carry the weight of it. “Great,” I thought, “this could turn into a huge mess.” But every step of the planning and preparation to leave the USA went so smoothly, everything falling into place at just the right time, that I could not deny that this was exactly where I needed to be right now. The doors were wide open, all I needed to do was walk through them.

And this is what happened when I did…

An EXPERIENCE at Bangkok Tree House

I don’t know what I was thinking. I had 20 minutes of free internet during my layover in Singapore. I figured that I could just find some recommendation for a place to stay via a snapshot of Thailand travel books online. The “5 Best Places to Stay in Bangkok” came up. I glanced at the hotels and figured that I didn’t need anything fancy or expensive. The Bangkok Tree House sounded nice so I googled it, checked the place out, looked at pricing (discount if you stay 4 nights so I put in for four nights–it seemed affordable), and took screen shots on my phone of the directions from the airport.

Once I landed in Bangkok, I took some time to get my bearings. (I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t get questioned at customs about my travel plans being that I came in on a one-way ticket; all visitors are issued a 30-day visa upon air arrival.) I packed everything into my big backpack, hid my important documents and spread them and my cash around, and changed out of my jeans as I could already feel the heat. I pulled some money from the ATM and exchanged a $20 bill so I could have some smaller bills as well. Thai currency is called “Baht” and the exchange rate is 35 Baht to 1 US Dollar. After meticulously studying the Bangkok train system (Skytrains, like BART, plus an underground Metro line) on a map I grabbed at the airport and calling the tree house from a pay phone to let them know I was on my way, I headed out.

For less than $3, I transported myself out of the airport and to my next stop. First success! And then I had to find a taxi in the streets of Bangkok. That proved to be slightly more challenging especially due to the language barrier, but “X” (he told me that was his name) was very patient, pulled up Google translator on his phone to facilitate conversation, and, though we got way lost when the pier was supposedly only 1.5 km away, he escorted me all the way down to the boat to make sure I was going to the right place. “X” and I were about the same age and one of the first questions he asked was if I had a boyfriend. I thought, “Oh, boy. Here we go again. Just like Central America.” This time around, though, I am not too proud to say, “Yes, I do have a boyfriend,” if it means I have an extra buffer as I am traveling solo. I’m not trying to prove a point like I was before. Safety first. As soon as I said it, he completely respected it and was just friendly, nothing more.

When I arrived at the Bangkok Tree House across the river, I was greeted with refreshing welcome drinks and the sweetest lady in the world–I’ll call her “Hana” because I can’t pronounce the rest of her name after the “Hana” part. The lodge was literally in the middle of the jungle at the river’s edge and pretty exposed to the elements. When we started going over pricing and she told me that the rate was just over a hundred and thirty dollars per night, I about had a heart attack. When I had looked it up, I thought that was the total for four nights; I obviously missed something. For a second, I thought about crossing back to the other side of the river, but it had taken such an effort to get over here, and I had no idea where else I would go, that I just sucked it up and told her I could stay for only one night. (She ended up only charging me $120, which was very kind.) Being that I set my weekly budget for $250-$300, spending $120 in the first night just on lodging was insane to me. But I told myself, “It’s ok. I can splurge this one time. I’ll just stay in a cheap hostel dorm room and eat street food for the rest of the week. Just enjoy this first night, you’ve come a long way to get here.”

These structures are some of the

These structures are some of the “tree house” dwellings in the jungle at Bangkok Tree House.

It was a beautiful place, flowers and greenery all over, and each dwelling made of wood and glass walls, inside and out. My quarters consisted of a 3-story structure: downstairs was the bathroom, sink, refrigerator, and sliding glass door that opened to the outdoor shower; upstairs was the air-conditioned bedroom with 2 glass walls (with shades) out of four so you could see the jungle at all times; then, from the deck, you could climb up to the rooftop that had a bed up there for sunbathing or just lounging around. I kept thinking that this place/experience would be much better shared with someone, but since that wasn’t the case, I embraced the silence and peaceful surroundings. What a drastic change of pace from the busy Bay Area.

The view of the deck and very near jungle vegetation from inside my room at Bangkok Tree House. (The giant ants on that stick are just

The view of the deck and very near jungle vegetation from inside my room at Bangkok Tree House. (The giant ants on that stick are just “ant-inspired” decor, not real.)

My luxurious bathroom and sink area at the Bangkopk Tree House.

My luxurious bathroom and sink area at the Bangkok Tree House.

The

The “outdoor shower” built on a deck attached to the downstairs area of my “tree house” dwelling.

The rest of my stay included trying to enjoy a VERY spicy green curry fish spaghetti dinner in the company of bats and a dog, using the outdoor shower to rinse off the sweat and stickiness of the jungle multiple times with chirping geckos skittering around eating bugs, and sharing my sleeping quarters with at least 2 crickets, one of which I found dead on the floor in the morning and being devoured by ants. It was charming. But I slept like a baby. In the morning, I was served the most delightful breakfast (poached eggs over toast, fresh fruit, corn flakes, coffee, and orange juice), and I took advantage of the wifi to download a PDF version of Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” travel guidebook to my iPad, which will be my lifesaver–and moneysaver–for the rest of my trip. No more accidental luxury tree houses!

Breakfast at Bangkok Tree House was fresh and delicious! And they even brought a bowl of corn flakes to go with it.

Breakfast at Bangkok Tree House was fresh and delicious! And they even brought a bowl of corn flakes to go with it.

Hana told me that there was a floating market nearby and suggested that I take one of the bikes to go over there that day to check it out. Normally the floating markets were only on the weekends, but that day was a Buddhist holiday so they were open. I rode a rickety bike through through the tiny, jungle-entrenched island, following signs pointing me in the right direction. It was a great way to explore, although the narrow cement roads and walkways made me a little nervous. When I arrived to the hustle and bustle, I parked my bike at the end of a row of other bikes. I thought I should probably lock it up, but in only one day, I had learned that the honor system over here is very important. People don’t usually mess with other people’s things. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t thieves, but thievery is not a prominent lifestyle over here.)

A food vendor at the floating market selling snacks and sweets.

A food vendor at the floating market selling snacks and sweets.

The reason it is called a floating market is because the big market takes place along the path of the river on an area supported by stilts above the water, not necessarily floating ON the river. It was vibrant but clean, with vendors selling everything from food to flowers, and clothing to artwork. Being among the people there felt great. No one was pushy, just very friendly. The sights and smells were wonderful as I peeked into booth after booth, exploring all the new kinds of food and snacks. There were families there as well, just perusing the market or stopping to share a meal. It was so fun to just be there and observe locals and visitors alike participating in the community.

Vendors selling fresh flowers at the floating market in Thailand.

Vendors selling fresh flowers at the floating market in Thailand.

Locals, visitors, and their families taking a breaking from strolling the floating market to enjoy some of the tasty treats and flavorful food found there.

Locals, visitors, and their families taking a breaking from strolling the floating market to enjoy some of the tasty treats and flavorful food found there.

After peeking into just about every food stand to find something appealing, I finally decided to go with some spring rolls. I saw a man eating them at a table nearby which made my mouth water, plus I figured they were safe enough for street food. The ladies packed them up to go for me and when it came time to pay, they spoke enough English to tell me the price was 30 Baht and they were just so patient and kind. In other countries, I look like an easy target so people try to take advantage, but here, they are so freakin’ honest. I think everyone here must have a strong belief in karma.

The ladies at the floating market who prepared the amazing spring rolls.

The ladies at the floating market who prepared the amazing spring rolls.

Feeling triumphant that I acquired food and had a cultural outing, I decided to head back to the tree house to return the bike. But as I exited the market and glanced down at the row of bikes, I noticed that mine was missing. Gone. Vanished. I thought, “Man, I knew this was too good to be true. I should’ve locked my bike up. But who would want that bike anyway? It’s kind of rickety. Oh, crap. What do I do now?” Just in case, I decided to look over the edge of the walkway and sure enough, there was my bike, submerged in the bank of the river!

My cute little bike taking a bath by the riverbank. Or drowning, more like it.

My cute little bike taking a bath by the riverbank. Or drowning, rather.

What happened next was amazing to me. I started thinking, “How the heck am I going to get my bike out of the river? It’s too far away. Maybe I’ll jump over to the bank, but I’ll probably have to step in the muddy river anyway.” As I was staring down at the river, all the passers-by started noticing and looking, too. They all started to figure out what was going on and I pointed at my bike and then at me and we all busted up laughing together. Then, some of the local men stepped in and started working together to retrieve the bike. One of the men found easy access to the bank and hopped over there, initiating the rescue while a couple of others grabbed a giant stick to hook on to the wheel. I got it on video so if you want to check it out you can click this link: http://youtu.be/65n1x-2fKEQ.

After the bike was out, everyone went on their ways, but all who passed by me and my dripping bike started pointing and laughing and I could do nothing but laugh with them. It was very funny and I actually got a little emotional about the whole experience because I was in such awe of the willingness of complete strangers to help solve a problem that wasn’t their own. As I rode back to the lodge, I was feeling good about choosing to travel to Southeast Asia as opposed to any of the other places I had been considering for this trip. Immersed in a culture of kindness, warmth, and friendliness is the perfect place to be right now.

Once I returned the bike and shared the video of the bike rescue with Hana, laughing even more with her, I gathered my things and prepared to leave. I felt so blessed to have Hana at that lodge; while her English wasn’t perfect, it was pretty darn good, and she helped me so much. She even made the boat ride with me to the other side of the river and went off to find a taxi for me and communicate with the driver where I needed to be dropped off. She was so awesome that I wanted to take her with me! She made the experience at Bangkok Tree House so enjoyable, and I would recommend that place as a getaway for travelers–well, for people traveling in pairs and with a little higher budget than mine.

My new friend, Hana, from Bangkok Tree House, escorted me back to the mainland and flagged down a taxi for me after I left the lodge. She was great!

My new friend, Hana, from Bangkok Tree House, escorted me back to the mainland and flagged down a taxi for me after I left the lodge. She was great!

With the help of my handy dandy PDF guidebook and its maps, I selected a hostel and navigated my way through the city via Skytrain, Metro, and foot to my next destination. S1 Hostel is in a pretty good part of town from what I have seen. Although slightly far from the downtown area, it is in a low-key neighborhood in the business sector with easy access to anywhere you want to go in the city. Trying to recover from my tree house splurge, I selected to stay in a dorm room (the cheapest option), paying only about $9.50 per night. I was prepared for the worst because hostels can be a hit or miss, but I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a clean, 6-bunk room complete with its own bathroom and shower, 2 sinks, and air conditioning. The building has wifi access on every floor, a small kitchen with a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, AND an amazing rooftop garden lounge that is now my favorite hangout spot and workspace.

The rooftop garden lounge on the 6th floor of the S1 Hostel, where I ate my breakfast and became a writing machine when I got to Bangkok.

The rooftop garden lounge on the 6th floor of the S1 Hostel, where I ate my breakfast and became a writing machine when I got to Bangkok.

What started out as only 2 nights has turned into 6, with one more night to go. I have taken advantage of this space to acclimate and get organized with my writing projects and photos, and I have made some serious progress. I also venture out daily for an outing, whether it be a formal destination or just wandering around and seeing where I end up. There is so much stimulation here that it is facilitating the creative process, however, I also have enough down time and time alone to focus.

Bangkok is an amazing city and I want to tell you all about it and the people here, but I am going to save that for my next Backpacking Bonus as it deserves a chapter of its own.

This is a snapshot of the business sector of Bangkok and the big lake in the middle of Lumphini Park,  about 10 minutes walking from where I stayed at S1 Hostel.

This is a snapshot of the business sector of Bangkok and the big lake in the middle of Lumphini Park, about 10 minutes walking from where I stayed at S1 Hostel.

At the end of one entire week (7 days) in Thailand, my spending came to a grand total of $280, averaging about $40/day. Not bad. And that was including my luxurious stay at the Bangkok Tree House, another big splurge on a meal at “namh” (located inside the Metropolitan Hotel)–one of the fanciest restaurants in Bangkok, entrances to all the sites and temples I visited, a Thai massage, a pedicure, AND a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. (Yes, Starbucks.) I don’t feel like I’m skimping by at all. I have everything I need, plus a little extra to indulge in the fancy-shmancy every now and then. ”

While I am not finished with this city by any means, and have decided that Bangkok will be my hub city while I am in SE Asia, it is time for me to move on to the next place now so I’ll be heading up to Chang Mai in northern Thailand for a couple days, or maybe a week, who knows…

TRAVEL TIP: Gadgets and electronics can be heavy and hard to keep track of (especially if they are small, like SD cards or USB sticks). To lighten the load and lessen the worry, try to reduce your load to only 2 multi-purpose electronic devices. Last time I traveled, I had a phone, a laptop and its charger, a camera, a backup camera, a small tripod, lots of batteries, plus a heavy guidebook. If you have the resources, bring an iPad or tablet instead of a bulky laptop; this eliminates the issue of carrying a guidebook as well because you can download the PDF version to your device. Also, having a smartphone (get it unlocked through your carrier before you go if you plan to buy a local SIM card and use it on your own phone) is a great way to go because it can double as a camera and instead of dealing with SD cards to save and backup photos, you can set up an automatic backup to the could (Google +, iCloud, Dropbox, etc.) as soon as you get internet/wifi access–no plug ins or slow public computers necessary. Plus, on either device, you can access email or personal information whenever you have wifi. As for the necessary small electronic gadgets–plugs, converters, chargers, batteries, etc., store them all together in a thick ziplock bag or other pouch. (I prefer quart and gallon-sized Ziplocs because I can see through them, not having to dig in a dark bag, and they are also thicker than a sandwich bag which means they’ll last longer and offer better protection.)

Much love,
Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Final Round: Mom

I arrived safely in Thailand last Wednesday and am acclimating back to the traveler lifestyle. I managed to board the plane with a total of 39.9 pounds of belongings with me, plus the clothes I was wearing. (I probably could have gone with fewer things, but I like to have some food and re-stock items with me.) It has been just under 2 years since my last backpacking venture came to an end, but I feel much more prepared this time around. Of course, it will take a little while for my body to get used to carrying around the weight of my pack and I have bruises on my hip bones to show for that, but it is totally worth the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling in such a simple manner. For those of you who have not experienced this feeling, I wish you could. You get to be carefree, concerned only with the few things you have with you, which frees you up to see the beauty of the world around you. Everything I need I have with me now. And anything I will need along the way (food, shelter, shower, etc.) is easily accessible.

The time zone difference is drastic: Thailand is 14 hours AHEAD of California time (PST). While I couldn’t escape the effects of jet lag, it only took me about 3 days to acclimate. I am taking advantage of it in the sense that now it is easy for me to go to sleep early and wake up early, getting a head start on each day.

The temperature has been steady in the mid- to upper 80s with relatively high humidity and occasional downpours in the afternoons, evenings, or overnight. Sunscreen and face wash are the only two things I put on my face anymore. The only issue that arises with sunscreen is trying to get as much sweat off your face and body as possible before re-applying in order to ensure that the sunblock sticks. It’s a funny problem to have.

I have enjoyed many new experiences thus far and the food is just as good or better than everyone had been saying, but I will save the details of this one for my first Backpacking Bonus post that is coming in a day or two. For now, I will continue the Guatemala project as I need to keep it moving…

—–

Mom visited me in Guatemala toward the tail end of my Peace Corps service. She was my last visitor and also the visitor that stayed the longest, arriving near the end of March and not flying home until the first week of April, totaling 15 days. Besides short visits to Mexico and Canada, Mom had never really traveled outside the USA, and certainly not to a developing country. I knew she wouldn’t really know what to expect and I figured she would WAY overpack so I tried my best to ensure she wouldn’t bring too much stuff because it would be difficult to haul everything around. My efforts were futile, but we managed nonetheless. As a first-time traveler, it seemed she wanted to be prepared for anything and everything. It was almost as if she were ready to move down to Guatemala permanently!

The itinerary I set up for Mom’s trip was pretty simple: 4 to 5 days at a time in three locations–Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and my site, San Andrés Sajcabajá. She had recently had a surgical procedure done on her back during which a nerve was nicked, leaving her partially without feeling in one of her upper legs, from the knee to the hip. Because of this, I didn’t know how she would manage in Guatemala where you have to walk everywhere! I chose only three locations to visit so she wouldn’t be pushed. Plus, taking into consideration that it usually takes my mom an entire day to unpack and settle in, and then another full day to re-pack, I figured it would be more time efficient if we didn’t have to move around a lot. As those of you who know my mom are already very well aware, she is significantly slow-moving.

When I met her at the airport, I was not surprised to count seven separate items trailing behind her, tended to by airport staff: two pieces of luggage, a duffel bag, a purse, a walker, an umbrella, and her big white hat. I had tried to convince her to leave her walker at home because it would not fare well with the cobblestone streets of Antigua or the dirt roads in my town, but she soon figured that out on her own and didn’t use the walker once the entire time as my arm was a much more adaptable stabilizer. She also quickly learned that bringing a big white hat to a dirty place wasn’t going to keep the hat white for very long! Sometimes people just have to learn things on their own; my job was to have patience with a first time traveler and observe in amusement. Luckily enough for her, the only casualty during the trip was the umbrella, forgotten on a chicken bus along the way.

Having a parent come to visit changes the dynamic of the adventure for sure. Instead of staying at hostels like I had done with all my friends and my brother, with Mom, I arranged for a nice, simple, classy hotel called Hotel D’Leyenda, sitting half a block from Antigua’s Central Park. It was the perfect location and for me, a total treat because it wasn’t often that I had a taste of luxury in Guatemala on my PC Volunteer budget (~$365/month as a living stipend). It was a peaceful place in the heart of a beautiful city, a warm welcome for any visitor.

Mom and I in the garden of Hotel D'Leyenda in Antigua.

Mom and I in the garden of Hotel D’Leyenda in Antigua.

Antigua offers so much to see and do so one of the first things I did was take Mom walking around the streets in the 7×7 grid tourist town. She was so excited to be there. Seriously, she was like a kid in a candy store, beaming from ear to ear, greeting everyone she passed, waving to people, etc. Wearing her big white hat to block the sun, she actually drew a lot of attention her way, especially from men. She interpreted it as everyone being so friendly, while I knew what was really going on and warned her that the catcalls and over-friendliness of the men were likely insincere. It was almost as if our mother-daughter roles were completely reversed during this trip: being that I had more experience, I was the mother figure, guiding her along and keeping my eye out for threats while she went about with a happy-go-lucky attitude, without a care or concern in the world, taking everything in with big, open eyes, in a similar way to how a child would. Her naïveté, however, tended to have a charming effect on those around her (see photo).

Mom in the middle of Guatemalan military. I'm not really sure how this happened...

Mom in the middle of Guatemalan military. I’m not really sure how this happened…

Most of the activities we did in Antigua were during the afternoons, one of the first being the famous chocolate-making workshop at the ChocoMuseo (where I had gone twice before with Jeffrey and then Christina & Aundrea). This is a wonderful activity for visitors! The workshop traces the origin and history of chocolate and how it has evolved over the centuries from a bitter drink, to a flavorful drink with spices, to chocolate bars, and even how, at one point in history, it was used as a form of currency. (Hence the expression “money that grows on trees.”) After the educational tour, we each had a chance to grind cacao beans, concoct and sample the different types of chocolate drinks, and even make our own chocolate pieces to take with us. I would recommend this workshop to any visitor passing through Antigua.

During our chocolate-making workshop at ChocoMuseo, we made traditional chocolate beverages with ground up cacao, spices, and a little bit of milk.

During our chocolate-making workshop at ChocoMuseo, we made traditional chocolate beverages with ground up cacao, spices, and a little bit of milk.

On a different afternoon, Mom and I took a trip out from Antigua to my training town, Alotenango, so she could meet my original host family (with whom I lived for 3 months when I first arrived in Guatemala) and so that they could meet her. To Guatemalans, it is an honor to meet your family. It would be offensive to them if my mom came out to visit and I did NOT introduce her to them. This was probably one of the most important things I could have done with her there. So we headed to the bus terminal where Mom got to experience her very first chicken bus ride. It was only a half an hour ride, so it was good practice for what was to come…

Mom getting her first experience on a crowded chicken bus.

Mom getting her first experience on a crowded chicken bus.

Upon arrival in Alotenango, my family greeted us warmly and invited us to share in a meal that Doña Amalia had prepared. All of my host sisters were there, at least briefly, which made it even more special. We spent several hours there, just chatting away and visiting. It made me so happy to share with my family, who had taken me into their home and helped me get through the initial phases of culture shock nearly two years prior. Doña Amalia, who constantly reassured me, “Poco a poco,” or little by little, whenever I would get frustrated with the language barrier, was just like a mom to me so the least I could do was bring my mom to spend some time with them. My mom was grateful to them as well for taking such good care of me, and she brought some small gifts for the family to show her appreciation.

Mom with Doña Amalia and Papa Julio, my host parents from pre-service training in Alotenango. She brought some small gifts for them.

Mom with Doña Amalia and Papa Julio, my host parents from pre-service training in Alotenango. She brought some small gifts for them.

Back in Antigua, the festivities continued. Mom arrived in Guatemala just as the Semana Santa, or Holy Week–Guatemala’s most important holiday, celebration was about to kick off. I posted an entire chapter on Semana Santa back in 2012 so I won’t go into full detail here (you can go read more about it on the “Special Edition: Semana Santa” post if you are interested), but I will say that it is one of the best times of the year to visit Guatemala because the processions and celebrations in preparation for Easter go on for about a week and a half and are like no other Holy Week festivities you have ever seen. The rituals, the symbolism, the honor–it is a majestic expression. While in Antigua, we were able to watch some of the processions. They can be absolutely haunting and so beautiful.

Mom visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so she had the opportunity to witness the beautiful processions through the streets of Antigua. Here is one of the floats in the procession.

Mom visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so she had the opportunity to witness the beautiful processions through the streets of Antigua. Here is one of the floats in the procession.

A pleasant surprise showed up to Antigua while we were there as well: my friends from California, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were on a short vacation traveling together in Belize and Guatemala. Jocelyn had served in the Peace Corps several years prior in Cape Verde (off the west coast of Africa) and Jessica and I used to work together at Forbes Mill Steakhouse and go rock climbing together before I started my PC service. It was such a treat to spend some time with them while they were passing through as I hadn’t seen them in nearly two years. They are fast-paced and energetic, always on the go and inevitably finding some kind of trouble or shenanigans along the way. It was wonderful to see them!

My friends from home, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were traveling in Guatemala during the same time so we spent some time with them. Here we are with Ronald McDonald at the McDonald's in Antigua--the fanciest McDonald's that I have ever seen.

My friends from home, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were traveling in Guatemala during the same time so we spent some time with them. Here we are with Ronald McDonald at the McDonald’s in Antigua–the fanciest McDonald’s that I have ever seen.

When it was time to leave Antigua, we arranged for a tourist shuttle to take us to our next destination, Lago de Atitlán, another big tourist spot in Guatemala. We stayed in a house in Panajachel that we rented for 5 days from an American lady who lived down there. This lake is a huge attraction for foreigners. There are so many expatriates living down there that I would say the area is less Guatemalan and more “foreignized” than ever. The year-round mild climate, closeness to nature, and considerably inexpensive real estate are all big draws. The sad part is that foreigners are essentially buying Guatemalans out of their own land. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the lady we rented the house from actually has two houses down there–one she lives in and the other she rents out to visitors. She had been down there for around 10 years already and hardly spoke a lick of Spanish. That is just evidence of what that area is turning into.

One of the reasons that the Lake Atitlán is so popular is that it is surrounded by three volcanoes and speckled with 15-20 lakeside villages, each with its own specialty and mood. One town, San Marcos, is known for yoga retreats and for attracting “hippie” types; San Juan is better known for the weaving co-ops where they make their own dyes, then hand-make bags, scarves, and other products to sell. (San Juan also has this amazing artisan cheese restaurant which was a favorite special treat for us PCVs!) San Pedro, which was off-limits to us as PC Volunteers, is a cheap backpacker draw where you can access Volcano San Pedro if you want to go for a challenging hike or just stick around town and access a whole lot of green stuff if you want to smoke instead. Santiago Atitlán is a bigger town where the legendary “Maximón,” who represents Judas, is moved from house to house in town where shrines are built around him and offerings (typically cigarettes, booze, money, or the occasional flower) are made so he can indulge his vices; those who arrive in Santiago Atitlán should seek out Maximón, if only to say hello, which is what we did. (We were a little far away to get a good photo, though!)

Mom and I being goofy and showing off our new headpieces, the traditional headpiece worn by women in a small town called San Antonio near Lake Atitlán.

Mom and I being goofy and showing off our new headpieces, the traditional headpiece worn by women in a small town called San Antonio near Lake Atitlán.

It was awesome that we had a small house in town because there were enough rooms for some of my other PC friends to stay a night or two with us as they were also gallivanting around Panajachel and the lake during the holiday. Kelly, George, and Kathy all stayed with us at some point so I was happy that my mom got to see some of my best friends from Peace Corps and vice versa. We volunteers definitely have a different way of life because Guatemala had conditioned us to go with the flow on a regular basis. I think my mom was in awe of how we all worked together and how flexible we had all become. One of the activities we all did together was take a boat trip across the lake to a town called Jaibalito where there is a public pool/hangout spot overlooking the lake. That was a fun afternoon!

From right to left (some of my other PCV friends), Sasha, Kelly, Mom, me, and Kathy visiting a lakeside town called Jaibalito at one of our favorite getaway spots called Ven Acá, which is a restaurant with a pool overlooking Lago de Atitlán.

From right to left (some of my other PCV friends), Sasha, Kelly, Mom, me, and Kathy visiting a lakeside town called Jaibalito at one of our favorite getaway spots called Ven Acá, which is a restaurant with a pool overlooking Lago de Atitlán.

Up until that point, safe transportation in tourist shuttles or private shuttles was easily accessible. However, following Panajachel, we were heading to my site–where tourist shuttles do NOT venture out to. There was no way around public transportation this time. Mom, plus ALL of her items, would have to face the trip that would have us on 3 separate chicken buses followed by a microbus ride on an unpaved road out to my site–the entire trip totaling three and a half to four hours. This made me very nervous. I would get anxious if I had to keep track of only TWO items during bus rides–but my two plus her SEVEN?!? Holy moly. There was no way…

And then I saw Eric, a PCV who lived in Canillá, the town half an hour past mine. I ended up bribing him with bus fare to stay with us for the whole trip. It was a good deal and having a third person, and a man at that, was so beneficial. He would have done it anyway without me paying his way home, but I really appreciated having an escort. It was worth being able to relax somewhat.

Once in my town, I felt like I could unwind because that was my home. Of course, it is a little different having a visitor who is “on vacation” because I still had work to do and I needed to jump right back into it. The priority switched from what Mom wanted to go see and do to preparation and implementation of my group activities, classes, workshops, and community visits. I went from being tour guide to full-fledged business owner. I made a commitment to my groups and it was “go” time. I was very happy to be back to work again after being away for a week and a half. This provided Mom with the opportunity to see what I really did on a regular basis as a volunteer in my town. I was in my element and Mom always had the choice to come with me or stay home, participate or just observe, rest at home or wander around town. She did all of the above depending on the day. There were a few activities that I insisted she be a part of, typically the ones in which I had very close relationships with the people involved. And there were some very special people in town who were eager to meet my mom so we incorporated those special visits into our week.

In my town where I lived and served, San Andrés Sajcabajá, I took mom around to visit some of my friends and neighbors. I always used to hang out with Irma and Olga (from the right); they lived half a block away from me. Mom also brought them a gift and here she is with them and their mom.

In my town where I lived and served, San Andrés Sajcabajá, I took mom around to visit some of my friends and neighbors. I always used to hang out with Irma and Olga (from the right); they lived half a block away from me. Mom also brought them a gift and here she is with them and their mom.

Some of the people we spent time with that week included my neighbors around the corner, Olga and Irma, who always insisted I pop in for quick random visits. I also took Mom across the street to meet Doña Gloria, my landlord and pseudo-mom; Mom had also brought some small gifts for her and her family, including Doña Gloria’s grandkids, Arli, Sarahy, and Alexandra, with whom I spent considerable amounts of time. One of Doña Gloria’s sons, Acisclo, was a very close friend of mine, I might even say he was the person I trusted the most and shared the most with in that town; he so generously spent over an hour visiting with my mom (and me) and discussing all sorts of things. He spoke a tiny bit of English and Mom spoke some Spanish so they managed to have a great, entertaining conversation. Lastly, we went over to Tayra’s house one evening to celebrate Tayra’s birthday. Tayra was my other very close friend and the wife of one of Doña Gloria’s other sons. She was like a sister to me and we used to cook together all the time, sharing various recipes and trying new things. She had recently had a baby boy that past February so her birthday was going to be low-key. It worked out perfectly that we could go over and spend that time with her, cooking together, sharing a meal, and then nibbling away at a giant homemade chocolate chip cookie “birthday cake” I somehow managed to bake. It was the perfect evening.

One of the activities Mom participated in that week was my kids group. Being that Easter had just passed, there was a great opportunity to fulfill the second of Peace Corps’ 3 goals: to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served. By bringing with her an Easter egg dying kit, Mom pretty much determined the theme of my kids group that week. We taught them about how Americans celebrate Easter and how it is different from how they celebrate it in Guatemala. After they dyed the eggs, we explained how the Easter Bunny comes the night before Easter to hide the eggs and then in the morning, they get to do an Easter egg hunt before attending a church service (in many families) then having a great big meal with all the family together. We then had them stay in my room while we hid the eggs they had colored, then we released the kids to do their own Easter egg hunt. They LOVED it!!! It was so cute to watch them, and we made sure that they had learned enough that they could go home and teach their parents/families about our lesson that day.

A brilliant and creative way to share American culture and traditions with my Guatemalan community, Mom brought an Easter egg dying kit and that is the activity we did in my kids' group that week, followed by an Easter egg hunt. The girl on the right, Arli, is my landlord's granddaughter and lived across the street--she is so smart and kind. I miss her a lot.

A brilliant and creative way to share American culture and traditions with my Guatemalan community, Mom brought an Easter egg dying kit and that is the activity we did in my kids’ group that week, followed by an Easter egg hunt. The girl on the left, Arli, is my landlord’s granddaughter and lived across the street–she is so smart and kind. I miss her a lot.

One of the last activities we had on the schedule that week was a trek out to the other village I worked in, Pajquiej, for a nutrition lesson and cooking class. I normally would walk out to Pajquiej, which took about an hour, but I knew that was too far for Mom to go on a hot day so I arranged for a tuk-tuk to pick us up and take us there. Lo and behold, the tuk-tuk ended up breaking down on the side of the road so we were stuck in the heat and sun anyway! But at least Mom got the tuk-tuk experience…

On the way out to my village, Pajquiej, the tuk tuk broke down. So mom was just hanging out in the broken tuk tuk until another one finally came along.

On the way out to my village, Pajquiej, the tuk tuk broke down. So mom was just hanging out in the broken tuk tuk until another one finally came along.

When we finally arrived at the home of one of the ladies in the group, Sandra, I introduced Mom and then we got started with an icebreaker. Each person, kids included, had a type of food taped to their back (well, a colored paper cutout and drawing, not the actual food) and they could only ask yes or no questions to other people until they figured out what food it was. It had everyone laughing, that’s for sure! We then proceeded with the lesson and prepared some kind of colorful, healthy dish. (I think it was spaghetti with vegetables and a meat-substitute protein, but I can’t remember too well because it has been so long!) All in all, it was another nice day, and as with everyone else, the people in Pajquiej were honored that I would bring my mom to meet them and see where they live. While they didn’t have much, they were always very eager to share what little they had. One can learn a lot about humility and generosity from the people in that tiny village.

Mom observed/participated in one of the nutrition lessons with cooking class that I facilitated for my group in Pajquiej.

Mom observed/participated in one of the nutrition lessons with cooking class that I facilitated for my group in Pajquiej.

All in all, I’d say Mom had a wonderful time. Surprisingly, of all my visitors, she was probably one of the best Spanish speakers and was just chatting away with everyone she met. She seemed totally in her element with how she regards time and I joked that maybe she should be living in Latin America where people rarely show up on time; she would fit right in. Haha! But it is true: life in Guatemala is more about visiting and talking to people and less about watching the clock. Lastly, by the time she was heading home, she was pretty much able to stand and walk on her own. All the walking over the past two weeks had strengthened her leg and given her back the confidence she had lost. To me, this is a typical lesson from Guatemala: You will do whatever needs to be done when there are no other options…and in Guatemala, there aren’t usually many options. It is amazing what people are capable of.

For me, I was grateful as ever that another guest would take the time and make the effort to experience parts of the country where a little piece of my heart will always remain. I felt absolutely spoiled that seven people made their way down to Guatemala during my service! And on the flip side, I was also relieved that my tour guide and translator duties were all said and done and I could focus my energy and time strictly on the people of my community for the remaining 3 months of my service.

Ok. That’s it for a week or so on the Guatemala project, but a Backpacking Bonus is on the way soon!

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 2

Back to the adventure…

From Granada, Marjolein (the Dutch woman I met in León who became my travel buddy) and I headed up to Managua, the capital on Nicaragua, the following afternoon to catch our flight to the Corn Islands. I had been stating over and over how I wanted to avoid staying the night in the capital city at all costs since I classified Managua to be both dangerous and boring, but of course I spoke too soon: our flight was cancelled supposedly due to a popped tire on the little hopper plane and we were put up in a hotel in Managua for the night by the La Costeña airline and scheduled to be on the first flight out in the morning. The Managua experience wasn’t actually so bad since the hotel was nice, transportation was covered for us, and they provided us with a nice dinner. Apparently all of Central America can be classified as the “Land of the Eternal Unpredictability,” not just Guatemala.

By the time we finally boarded our flight the next day we were getting really excited. The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Nicaragua and supposedly offer some of the best diving in clear, turquoise waters. I was hoping to do another SCUBA course for my Advanced Open Water certification while I was there and Marjolein was looking for some serious island time and hoping to squeeze in a handful of dives during the week as well. After flying into Big Corn Island, we immediately headed for the ferry station to boat over to Little Corn Island where we stepped into a place completely designed for relaxation and rustic adventure: the unwritten standards of the island were along the lines of “no cars, no shoes, and no hot water.” Without vehicles, hearing and spotting crabs, hermit crabs, and salamanders scurrying all over the small island was feasible and common. Instead of shoes, we went barefoot for nearly the entire week, and, finally, there was no real need for hot water in the tropics.

100_6524

View from the front porch of our cabin on the East side of Little Corn Island. White sand beaches and turquoise seas DO exist!

Unfortunately, we ran into some issues right off the bat with both our lodging options and our dive shop options. We had been misled regarding the availability of cabanas at one lodge where we were trying to set up a deal for a discount in lodging paired with a course and dives at the sister dive shop. Not only did the owner not realize that there were no cabins available for the five consecutive nights we were going to be on the island, but the dive shop she owns was out of commission for most of the week due to a broken down air compressor that has been acting up for 10 years and she refuses to fix—according to all the residents on the rest of the island.

This woman, Mary, demonstrates a great example of an irresponsible international investor. She lives in Chicago and supposedly doesn’t know a thing about diving yet owns Little Corn Dive Shop and Casa Iguana Lodge and, while she doesn’t really maintain quality upkeep, she collects all the tourist profits at the same time paying her employees late, if at all. There is even a drink named after her called “Scary Mary Rum Punch—it makes you crazy and steals your paycheck” at one of the restaurants on the island. She is notorious on Little Corn Island and nobody likes her because of all the problems she causes, but she is an investor and her money is her shield. It was interesting to hear the local perspective on this as we were directly affected by it.

She left us in a lurch because we had no other reservations anywhere else for diving or lodging so we had a lot of work to do despite an attempt to arrive prepared to the island. The first night, we stayed in a bungalow with a private bathroom right on the beach, literally built on stilts in golden sand maybe 30 paces from the bright blue sparkling sea. But we only stayed one night there—Marjolein felt that it was too expensive for such a rustic set-up. The lodging hunt that followed was frustrating, to say the least. Some of the “no” reasons are listed: too expensive, not nice enough, there was only one bed, or there wasn’t a fan. But we couldn’t be too picky because there wasn’t much to choose from and we were going to be there all week. Had I been traveling alone, I probably would have taken any of those places; having to satisfy two people’s preferences on that island proved difficult. We eventually decided on a hotel that was right next to the only other dive shop on the island and we ended up getting a deal on both lodging and diving there instead.

Once we settled in, we were finally able to relax a tiny bit. On the second day, I squeezed in last-minute to the only Advanced Open Water course being offered at Dolphin Dive that week, joining two other women and a female instructor, Jenn, this time. The “specialty” dives included during the course were a deep dive, a navigation dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, an underwater photography dive, and a night dive. We did all five dives in just two days. It felt extremely rushed, but there wasn’t as much bookwork this time; instead the focus was practice. The main reason to do an advanced dive course is for the deep dive clearance so that the depth of a dive will not limit your diving location options in the future. By checking that off, you have underwater freedom. All three of us successfully finished the course and had a great time together!

Laura (right), the German girl (center), and I underwater and decked out in our SCUBA gear during our Advanced Open Water dive course.

Laura (right), the German girl (center), and I underwater and decked out in our SCUBA gear during our Advanced Open Water dive course.

Consistent with its reputation, Little Corn Island was a superb diving location with great visibility and a large variety of marine life. Some of the creatures that I had to opportunity to see up close and personal included lionfish, spiny lobsters, barracuda, trumpet fish, sea cucumbers, lionfish, sea anemones, starfish, cleaner shrimp, hermit crabs, sea slugs, green turtles, hawksbill turtles, sea urchins, porcupine fish, and some of my favorites—the very large and very beautiful parrotfish (both “midnight” and “rainbow”).

A lion fish in "Yellow Tail" dive location off the coast of Little Corn Island. Lion fish are an invasive species so they are often hunted (with spears) and consumed by locals.

A lion fish in “Yellow Tail” dive location off the coast of Little Corn Island. Lion fish are an invasive species so they are often hunted (with spears) and consumed by locals.

My best daytime dive was at a shallow location (max depth: 45 feet) called White Holes. During this early afternoon dive, we spotted 9 nurse sharks and 2 eagle rays!! And since it was relatively shallow, the colors of the reef and sea creatures living on it were bright and vibrant. It was so neat to swim behind the sharks, rays, and parrotfish, trailing them, just to observe their behavior and watch how they move. There is no reason to be afraid. The rule of thumb for interacting with marine creatures while diving is, “If you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.” Some species can be aggressive (tiger sharks, great whites, etc.) and it is recommended to maintain distance, but nurse sharks are mild-mannered.

I am glad I had the opportunity to use the underwater camera a couple times because I got a couple neat shots! Of course, without a flash, the true colors cannot be captured; the deeper you go in the ocean, the less available light there is.

Can you spot the juvenile trumpet fish? Camouflaged well, he is almost as long as the plant.

Can you spot the juvenile trumpet fish? Camouflaged well, he is almost as long as the plant.

My experience as a whole on Little Corn Island was totally different and not as enjoyable as my time on Roatán, where I had my initial SCUBA training and diving experiences. I didn’t feel that I connected very well with many people, and that may have been related to my own state of mind. I was craving alone time and the ability to make independent decisions but not getting much of either. We did, however, run into a super cool group of people from San Francisco who was on vacation for a week during the same time we were on the island. Laura from my Advanced Open Water course was one of them. She and her boyfriend, Rick, were AWESOME and fun to be around so Marjolein and I ended up hanging out with their group (shout out to Ken, Matt, the other Matt, Ebu, Evyenia, and Dane!) for most of the week. I have since reconnected with them in San Francisco having moved back to the Bay Area – and Laura and Rick actually got engaged just a few months ago! Did I mention what neat people they all are?

One benefit of having a travel buddy is that you can both indulge in fabulous meals for sharing! Our meal here is a fresh lobster with potatoes and veggies. It was delicious!

One benefit of having a travel buddy is that you can both indulge in fabulous meals for sharing! That evening, Marjolein and I shared a fresh lobster with potatoes and veggies. It was delicious!

My week in Little Corn can serve as a great example of pros and cons of traveling. One of the PROS is that you can meet and connect with people from all over the world—even from your own backyard—and remain lifelong friends with them. And a CON, or more of a reality of traveling, is that it is not always the stereotypical exciting or relaxing vacation that we are conditioned to think of when someone mentions traveling to an exotic place. Things can go awry or you can be in one of the most beautiful places in the world and not be engaged with it. As I backpacked through Central America, I experienced these things as well as the many other pros and cons that come with the territory. Most, if not all, travelers do.

The eastern shore of Little Corn Island. A little piece of paradise.

The eastern shore of Little Corn Island. A little piece of paradise.

My very last dive of the week was a night dive I did after I completed my Advanced Open Water course, making this my third night dive overall – and by far the most amazing! The memory I have from this dive is easily one of my top memories ever. In addition to the amazing creatures we spotted and observed in their nocturnal routines, we also had the chance to experience bioluminescence in the dark again, just as we had done in Honduras. But this time, we kept all the flashlights off for 15 minutes straight, allowing everyone to float or drift however the current moved.

Instead of kneeling in the sand patch on the ocean floor, I floated up about 5-8 feet so I could be completely surrounded by the bioluminescent “strings of pearls” (the tiny crustacean called an ostracod), twinkling like little stars in a string-like pattern (which is a mating ritual). As I marveled at Nature’s work, I felt a complete loss of control—floating underwater in a pitch black ocean with no idea how close or far away I was from my companions—and I was at total peace with the fact that I was wrapped in Nature’s arms and at the mercy of God’s plan for the Universe. I felt wonderment and appreciation and, although I felt so tiny like I was traveling through an endless galaxy with only stars around me, I felt like this was exactly where I needed to be in that moment in time. My entire body was overcome with a peaceful feeling, completely relaxed in knowing that I wasn’t in control. It was an amazing experience.

When Marjolein and I left Little Corn Island, we headed back to Granada and spent one more night together there before she continued her journey on to Costa Rica. We had spent a total of 15 days together (probably my maximum time limit for travel buddies); I was ready to be alone again to get stable, re-center myself, and write more so I decided to stay in Granada for a couple more days because Granada has this fabulous coffee shop culture that is perfect for all of that. After Marjolein left, I switched to a hostel for $5 dorm beds. It also had free drinking water and Internet, plus I had the dorm to myself for 3 of the 5 nights I stayed there. It was awesome. I ate at Garden Café (my favorite restaurant there) for the majority of my meals, and I even had the opportunity to grab lunch with Nancy, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Suriname and now lives in Nicaragua, running Hotel Casa de San Francisco in Granada. The Peace Corps community is everywhere!

RPCV Nancy and I at The Garden Café in Granada, enjoying lunch and conversation.

RPCV Nancy and I at The Garden Café in Granada, enjoying lunch and conversation.

I came to really love Granada and my time there allowed me to learn a little more about the food and culture. Nicaragua, just as many of the Central American countries, considers rice and beans as their staple foods. The funny thing about it, though, is that each country has their own version of rice ‘n beans. Imagine that. In Nicaragua, they mix whole red beans together with rice and call it gallo pinto, or “painted rooster.” Although it is just rice ‘n beans, just like any other rice ‘n beans, it is delicious; I don’t know what they do differently to make it taste so good, but no complaints there! In addition to that, Nicaragua is well known for its variety of meats as well as quesillos, or toasted slabs of firm white cheese.

At the southern part of Granada on the edge of Lake Nicaragua stands a statue of Francisco Hernandez Córdoba, who founded Nicaragua in 1524 and after whom Nicaraguan money, the córdoba, is named.

At the southern part of Granada on the edge of Lake Nicaragua stands a statue of Francisco Hernandez Córdoba, who founded Nicaragua in 1524 and after whom Nicaraguan money, the córdoba, is named.

I savored every minute of my last day in Granada pushing relaxation to the max with a $3 haircut followed by an approximately $25 spa package that included a massage, facial, and a reflexology foot massage. Writing, gelato, nice dinner, and peace. It was perfect. My plan for the next day was to hop on a bus headed southwest to the San Juan del Sur coast for a couple days, but my plan was interrupted with a very unsettled stomach that resulted in several minutes of vomiting just as I was about to check out of the hostel. I hadn’t puked in over 5 years—even surviving my entire Peace Corps stint without throwing up—so this was very unusual. While once was the end of it, I stayed an extra night, just in case. Little did I know, this was the first symptom of something much more severe, but I’ll wait to tell you about that once we get to Costa Rica…

So my plan changed again and when I finally got on that bus heading for the coast, I decided to avoid the notorious party town beaches at San Juan del Sur and instead I hopped on a ferry on Lago de Nicaragua, Nicaragua’s massive lake, heading for Isla de Ometepe, the small island that is made of two volcanoes in the middle of the lake. I picked a quiet lodge on one of the edges of the lake facing West so I had spectacular sunset views; I only had two nights available to stay out there which wasn’t nearly enough time, so I’ll just have to go back out there someday because it is a magical place and I was sad to leave it behind.

Isla de Ometepe, created by two volcanoes, on Lake Nicaragua. The high peak on the left is Volcano Concepción and the smaller peak to the right is Volcano Maderas.

Isla de Ometepe, created by two volcanoes, on Lake Nicaragua. The high peak on the left is Volcano Concepción and the smaller peak to the right is Volcano Maderas.

The magic began just hours after I settled in when a tropical storm made its presence known through heavy rain and big gusts of wind, causing the power to go out for several hours. I couldn’t write during that time so I hung out in a hammock outside and just happened to start talking to a random stranger who was also sitting there outside in the dark, equally admiring the forces of Nature. His name was Paul and he was from New Mexico, also traveling solo—on vacation for a couple weeks. We discussed our plans for our island stay and decided to pair up to climb Volcano Maderas (4,573 feet) the next day. I was relieved to have found yet another travel buddy to join me for my adventure because it was not recommended to climb that volcano alone, especially as a female.

A vibrant hibiscus flower on the grounds of the lodge where I stayed on Isla de Ometepe.

A vibrant hibiscus flower on the grounds of the lodge where I stayed on Isla de Ometepe.

The following day was filled with such wonderful surprises, starting with a dog from the lodge befriending us. The lodge owners said the dog didn’t have an owner or a name so Paul decided to name him “Cáne” (pronounced KAH-nay) which means dog in Italian. Haha! When we left midday to begin our journey to the waterfalls on the volcano, Cáne decided to follow us. We didn’t know how long he would trail us, but he ended up staying with us for the entire hike and all the way back home! It was like he adopted us. And it was really nice to have that extra companionship. He was such a good pup.

Cáne, Paul, and I at the waterfall and freshwater pools after several hours of hiking on Volcano Maderas.

Cáne, Paul, and I at the San Ramón waterfall and lagoon after several hours of hiking on Volcano Maderas.

In addition to Cáne, we were also graced by the presence of wild horses and howler monkeys. The horses were just grazing on the mountainside so it gave us a good resting point to stop and watch them. They let us get close enough to touch them, and although the baby colt was a little skittish, his curiosity got the best of him and he came up to investigate us, sniff us out some, before running off again to nurse on his mama. It was definitely a treat!

Wild horses grazing on the mountainside on Volcano Maderas.

Wild horses grazing on the mountainside on Volcano Maderas.

Paul, getting acquainted with the colt during our waterfall hike on Volcano Maderas.

Paul, getting acquainted with the colt during our waterfall hike on Volcano Maderas.

Once we finally found the waterfall, we were already getting a little tired and both dripping sweat due to the heat and the humidity so the thing to do was definitely jump in!! The freshwater pool was only maybe three to four feet deep and freezing, but it felt refreshing. We also ran into another group of hikers while we were there; incidentally, I knew one of them, Judy, whom I had met at the Surfing Turtle Lodge just a few weeks prior. This is a regular occurrence: when traveling in the same parts of the world, you will likely run into the friends and other travelers you already met along the way.

Full picture of the San Ramón waterfall, at 56 meters high (about 180 feet), at the end of our hike up the southern slope of Volcano Maderas.

Full picture of the San Ramón waterfall, at 56 meters high (about 180 feet), at the end of our hike up the southern slope of Volcano Maderas. (Photo not to scale because I am standing WAY in front of the waterfall, probably by about 200 feet.)

So proud of Cáne keeping up, we decided it was time to turn around as it had taken us several hours to get to the waterfall and we only had a little bit of daylight left. All through the jungle, we could hear howler monkeys at a distance singing among the trees, but it wasn’t until we were back on the main road that we spotted a couple in the nearby trees, swinging, playing, and chasing each other. (They were a little too far away for any clear photos.) Once Cáne and the monkeys saw each other, though, they calmed down and just watched each other for a few minutes. But we couldn’t stay too long because it was nearly sunset and we still had a ways to go.

Sunset view from Isla de Ometepe on our way back from the waterfall hike.

Sunset view from Isla de Ometepe across Lake Nicaragua on our way back from the waterfall hike.

It was an exhausting day, but well worth every minute spent out in nature. Poor Paul was stuck with me talking his ear off for 6 or 7 hours straight that day, but he was a good sport about it. The next day we decided to travel back to Granada together before going our separate ways. And guess who followed us as we left the lodge and walked ten minutes down the road to the bus stop? Cáne did, of course! And he even got on the bus, knowing that that was where we were headed. He SO badly wanted to come with us. Talk about loyalty! And he had only known us for a day!! It was sad to leave him behind, but we trusted that he would make new friends.

Cáne boarding the bus on our way out. He wanted to leave the island with us! Isn't he cute??

Cáne boarding the bus on our way out. He wanted to leave the island with us! Isn’t he cute??

In total, I spent about a month in Nicaragua and it was the perfect trip because I had no time pressure and I just moved along as I felt like it at a slow pace. I did and saw what I wanted to do and see. I had alone time and social time; I hiked in canyons and on volcanoes, I swam on beaches and in freshwater pools, and I embraced as many underwater adventures as I could fit in. I witnessed some of the most magnificent displays of nature, made friends, ate good food, and studied the culture. Nicaragua was kind to me, for the most part, and will always have a special in my heart.

Love,

Alexandra

Return From Writing Hiatus

Hello, hello! It has definitely been awhile…

I haven’t written in over a year and a half, having left my story very obviously unfinished. A turn of events in my life recently has gifted me with both the time and freedom to return to and finish my writing project.

Since returning from Central America in October 2013, my plans and path have changed drastically. Two posts ago, I wrote that I was living in Roseville, starting work at a restaurant again, and planning to visit everyone, save some money, write a lot, and look into grad school. None of that really happened, except for the temporary stay with my mom and saving some money.

I switched directions, moved back to the Bay Area, and started working a semi-corporate professional job as the Recruiting Director for a start-up financial services firm (that was under the corporate umbrella). While I learned an immense amount about business development and refined a skill set in that arena, it was probably one of the most stressful and high-pressure positions I will ever have in my life. It WAS my life for quite awhile, and all my time and energy went to recruiting, networking, community involvement, and everything else all about work. Consequently, it led to severe neglect of this lingering writing project that I think about on a daily basis.

In late April, the corporate office pulled the plug on our small firm (as well as all the other developing firms in California), merging us into an already independent agency of the company; my position was eliminated in the process. While it was sad to have everything we had worked to build just be taken away from us in a clean swoop, I am grateful to have experienced a corporate takeover at 28 years old and relieved that my stress level has significantly decreased.

I have enough of a cushion to take a couple months off now to complete my personal projects as well as do a thorough career exploration and select carefully before I make my next move. My experiences in the last few years have demonstrated the importance of identifying your passion, listening to your heart, and engaging with your calling. I am not going to ignore the opportunity I have been given at this point in my life.

I was lucky enough to go back to Guatemala in May for a short time; that trip will have a significant impact on how this story ends. I have only 8 chapters or so left to write for “Guatemala, Through My Eyes” and my commitment is that I’m not going to start a new job until I’m done writing this time (so I better write fast!!). These chapters are what you can expect for the remainder of the story:

Post-PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 2

Visitors Galore, Final Round: Mom

Post-PC Travels: Costa Rica

Learning to Count Up

The Gringo Groove: Worlds 3 & 4

Sexy in Guatemala

Bolos, Chuchos, & Mangoes

A New Set of Eyes

The first three chapters are going to be lighter, sort of “froo-froo” chapters in how they relate to the overall conclusion, but they are part of the experience, nonetheless. I am hoping that my last five chapters will turn out to be some of the best writing and deepest exploration and sharing that I have done about Guatemala yet. I am planning for a strong finish.

So everything is ready now. I have all the templates for the remaining chapters up and partially outlined on my laptop, I have my purple pens and paper available for brainstorming, and I have a new journal that I have begun to write in again that will document this next leg of the journey. Oh, and last but not least: I bought a plane ticket to Southeast Asia. I figure that because I tend to write the best when I am out of the country, I might as well get my bum out of the country. I’m leaving in a couple weeks.

Ready, Set, WRITE!!!

Ready, Set, WRITE!!!

In addition to my remaining Guatemala chapters, while I am away, I will be writing short “Backpacking Bonus” posts with photos to document my adventures through Southeast Asia.

So please send well wishes and prayers my way for optimal health and safety, as well as focus, energy, and strength to write what needs to be written. In return, I will share my experiences with you as best as I can through stories and photos.

Again, I appreciate all the support, encouragement, and friendship coming from many of you who read. There are some of you whom I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit in person since I have been back, but know that I always have you on my mind and hope to see you at some point soon.

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 1

After a lovely 15 days spent in El Salvador where I wasn’t really on my own very much, I was ready to get on the move again. The day I left San Salvador, I was planning to make it to Nicaragua, but I didn’t make it that far due to public transportation. Since El Salvador and Nicaragua don’t share a border, I had to cross back into Honduras and drive two hours through the country to the other border crossing for Nicaragua. Since I was just pulling into the border town, San Marcos de Colón at the southern part of Honduras, by 8 PM, I decided to stay the night. That meant I got a good night’s sleep and one more typical Honduran breakfast of baleadas and fresh cantaloupe juice in the morning before I headed for the border.

My first destination was the town of Estelí, a so-called “cowboy” town in the northwestern highlands of Nicaragua. One of my first encounters with a local occurred at a roadside food stand, where I had ordered an afternoon snack of an enchilada (more like an empanada stuffed with chicken and rice) and quesillo, a small block of cheese toasted on the grill, a Nicaraguan specialty.

The man came up to me and asked if I was going to treat him to an afternoon snack as well. Naturally I was wary of being approached so brazenly, but he started speaking to me in English some so I listened. The guy was in his 60s and had previously lived in L.A. for 15 years—has citizenship even. He has been retired for seven years and came back to Nicaragua (where his retirement money and social security get sent) because he said there is no life in the States—why would anyone want to live there when they can live in peace and tranquility elsewhere? This is the general consensus of many people in these countries: go to the States until you feel financially secure, then go home and live the good life with all the money you made (that stretches so far in these countries).

He continued to probe me for information, and when I let it out that I spoke Spanish so well because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala for two years, he started telling everyone who passed on the street (usually locals, all of whom he knew by name) that I worked for the CIA. Apparently, Nicaraguans all used to think that PCVs worked for the CIA, especially during the war—why else would they be infiltrating rural villages and trying to gain the trust of all the locals in their communities? By the time 20 minutes had passed and everyone who walked by knew my name, the state I was from, and my supposed CIA agent status, and this guy had interrogated me about my marital status, I think he was bored so he left to probably find someone else to poke fun at. The whole encounter made me laugh because it is so typical of the lifestyle of rural towns.

Estelí is a relatively mellow place so I decided to take a writing day while I gave my dog bite injury some more time to heal before getting active again. There wasn’t too much to do in Estelí anyway. It is known for its cigar factories, but I wasn’t really interested in that. It also has some natural reserves and opportunities to hang out with local families and make tortillas and stuff, but since I had been doing that for two years, I decided I could pass. The big thing I was interested in was the Somoto Canyon, an hour and a half north by the Honduran border, so I signed up to take the tour the day after my writing day.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

I hopped on a bus to Somoto early the next morning and was picked up by the tour operator who took me on his motorcycle to where the tour guide was waiting for me. They geared me up with water shoes and a lifejacket, and the guide and I set off on foot for the canyon. It turned out that I was the only person who signed up (and showed up) that day so I got a personalized tour, and we moved at my pace! My tour guide even voluntarily became my personal photographer, constantly asking, “Do you want me to take a picture of you here? How about over there?”

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon.

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon. (That huge bruise on my thigh is from my dog bite!)

The hike through the canyon ended up taking about three and a half hours, and the place was stunning! After making it to the actual canyon, we made our way through it by jumping off canyon formations into freshwater pools, then swimming or walking through the streams toward the other end of the canyon. Being right there in between these giant canyon walls just drifting along gave me such a peaceful feeling. Nicaragua is so proud of the Somoto Canyon that the 50 Córdoba bill (Nicaraguan currency, approximately equal to US$2) even features it.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

While Estelí is a mellow town, it is also filled with very bothersome men. I, just as every other foreign woman living or traveling in Latin America, have encountered a significant amount of unwanted male attention, however, I don’t know that I have ever gotten as much attention as I did in Estelí. The men were shameless. The catcalling, the kissy-smoochy sounds, and the honking. All of it. One guy even slowed his car down in the street, holding up traffic, until he was just ahead of me as I was walking down the sidewalk; he made sure to make eye contact as he made a very exaggerated kissing motion toward my direction, earning a much-practiced scowl from me before I turned the corner. Of course, the escalated attention probably was due in part from my “solo traveling,” but I still made a note to avoid all so-called cowboy towns in the future.

In addition to being completely annoyed by the brazen, relentless attention from men in Estelí, I also didn’t find anyone I really connected to there. It made me really miss some of my previous awesome travel buddies like Marcus and Tibo. Estelí seems like one of those “heart of Nicaragua” towns in which you have to spend a lot of time before the people start trusting you. But I didn’t exactly have another two years to spend there and this trip wasn’t focused on integration, plus the last night in the dorm room at the hostel brought in a couple more antisocial people and a girl who smelled as if she hadn’t showered for a week, so I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there! Off to León.

Not long after arriving in León, I was already feeling better. After dodging pressure to stay at “the biggest party hostel in León” by a guy who waits at the bus terminal scooping up travelers before they catch their breath and convincing them to head to his hostel, I found my way to a place called Lazybones Hostel, which was much mellower than my first option and even had a nice swimming pool and plenty of hammocks. I immediately caught the vibe and within minutes, I made new friends who were just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. Hanging out with the four German guys and the two Dutch girls made me yet again think, “Geez. Europeans are so funny and really smart!” We all had a great time and swapped some fun stories and travel recommendations.

In the next couple days, I spent a lot of time with the Dutch girls, Marieke and Marjolein (sound like “Marika” and “Mario-lane”). Marieke is a teacher and was spending her summer holiday traveling in Nicaragua. Marjolein had recently ended a contract with her job in Mexico, where she had been living for four years; she is currently en route via land to Argentina, where she plans to look for work and live for a while. Marieke and Marjolein had actually attended school together in the Netherlands years ago and found out that, by chance, that they were in Nicaragua at the same time so they made sure to get together in León, where I found them. And I am sure glad I did!

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, "Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!" Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it--especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow's nose! Maybe someday I'll learn not to put my foot in my mouth...

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, “Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!” Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it–especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow’s nose! Maybe someday I’ll learn not to put my foot in my mouth…

León itself is a nice place—a university town, although it has the reputation for being the hottest town in all of Nicaragua. After breakfast with my friends the next day (Sunday), I wandered through the streets into the Rubén Darío museum (he was one of the most influential poets in all of Central America and still a very important figure in Nicaraguan history), through the Ortíz art gallery to admire old paintings and sculptures, and over to a couple prominent churches and the giant cathedral in the area. There weren’t too many people wandering around while I was in the middle of the day (which can probably be attributed to the thick heat) so it gave the place a very laidback feeling.

It is a relatively easy town to get around in although the majority of given directions come in forms such as “from the central park, a block and a half up” or “from the La Merced church, go two and a half blocks down and one block over.” Of course, the only way to know which direction is up, down, or over at any given time is to try to follow the hand signals of the direction-giver. There are all types of transportation, but it is far from overcrowded and the streets are decent (with the exception of a bazillion deep potholes along every sidewalk). Additionally, I was surprised by the number of locals all over the country who choose bicycling as their main from of transportation (in Estelí as well!).

Another trend that caught my attention all over Nicaragua was the presence of rocking chairs. The most common setting is a front porch, yard, or sidewalk after the sun has gone down and things start cooling off. (León comes alive in the evenings!) It provides a great spot for locals to get some fresh air and people-watch while chitchatting about this, that, and the other thing. But rocking chairs aren’t just found there; they are in people’s living rooms, at restaurants, and even serving as the main furniture in travel agencies and hostels! (I continued to see rocking chairs in every other town I visited as I traveled south in Nicaragua, as well.)

I planned my big León adventure for Monday morning: a hike up Volcano Cerro Negro—a young, active cone that is completely black and has three craters that are constantly hot with sulfuric activity—with the specific intention of sand-boarding down the side of it. I went with a group of six through an agency that drove us out to the park and set us up with boards, jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, gloves, and goggles. (We carried our gear up in special bags for later use…)

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

The hike up the volcano only took about 45 minutes—the shortest ascent I have ever made on a volcano. Not only did we get to look down into the craters and out over the landscape, but we also spotted unexpected wildlife: a porcupine foraging for a meal only a couple meters away from us!!

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

After walking around the top for a few minutes, it was time for the real fun. We geared up and got a quick lesson from our guide on how to “steer” and slow down or speed up during the descent. The majority of us had chosen to go down sitting on our board as opposed to standing so it was more like black gravel tobogganing than sand-boarding. (The one lady who attempted to go standing took about 10 minutes to get down because she kept falling every few feet, said it was a lot of work, and reported that volcanic gravel doesn’t really have anything in common with snow; we were all impressed that she took the task on in the first place.)

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

When it was my turn, I sat down, grabbed the rope handle/reins, leaned back, and gave myself a little push. Then I was off! Speed picked up really fast because the smooth push-off quickly becomes a steep 45-degree angle descent, and all I could focus on was trying to keep my board pointed downward. But that was hard to do while I had black, charcoal-like gravel shooting up the legs of my jumpsuit, firing at my cheeks and exposed mouth, falling down my clothes from the opening at the neck, and nailing my goggles. Despite being under gravel-attack, I had to stay steady and focused because as soon as you lose focus, you fall and take a rough tumble. I managed to stay on and make it to the bottom in about 40 seconds. It was exhilarating!

This is the final leg of my high-speed  volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

This is the final leg of my high-speed volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

As soon as I got back to Lazybones, I checked in with Marjolein and we were both ready to get on the move (and away from the debilitating heat) and head for the coast to a place called Surfing Turtle Lodge, on a little island called Isla de Los Brasiles, just off the Pacific beach town of Poneloya, 20 minutes west of León. (Marieke had left us early that morning for her flight back to the Netherlands; this is the point when Marjolein and I became official travel buddies.) We were a little skeptical of this place because it seemed to good to be true, but we decided to give it a shot and stay at least one night. Getting out there was an adventure in itself that involved a hot, sweaty bus, then a 10-minute walk to a random restaurant where we were supposed to take a tiny motorboat out to the island, and then walk another 15 minutes through a marshy forest until we arrived at the lodge right on the beach.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Upon arrival, we looked at each other and decided that we were going to stay longer than planned—at least a few nights. (That was a Monday.) So although the Surfing Turtle Lodge had neither good surfing (since the currents were way too strong and would break a lot of boards) nor turtles due to the fact that it wasn’t turtle season, it was still a neat spot to hang out because it was practically the only place on the island. We stayed in the spacious dorms that had a nice breeze and an ocean view and enjoyed the isolation for a couple days. The place was rustic and the food options were limited, but you can’t really demand much for a place out in the middle of nowhere. The peace that the ocean provided was the payoff.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

I don’t really have much to say about this part of the trip because I didn’t do much but read, write, and relax. I took a couple walks on the beach on which I could go at least 30 minutes in either direction and then return without seeing anyone else out there. We also played in the waves but we didn’t go too far out of respect for the current. There were other travelers there so we met lots of people and were in good company, but the best part about it was that there were enough people there to get beach volleyball matches going every afternoon for three days straight, plus a little bit of ping pong in the evenings!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

I kept to myself a lot so I could spend time with nature and my thoughts. I also found that I have very different priorities from the younger travelers looking for partying or romance so the conversation with them proved difficult; Marjolein (at 35) and I often sought each other out for conversation relief from the early-20-somethings. We were still very social when the time called for it; for example, there was no way either of us was going to miss the full moon party with the beach bonfire and group mystery games on Thursday night! It was also great to hear the individual stories of some of the mellower guests which included Terry, an easygoing South African who works on yachts and has a favorite hobby of shark-diving, and the Dutch couple who has been trying for years to start a family, and after recent run-in with bad luck (for the 4th time), decided to use the money they had been saving to buy a car for “future family use” to take a big trip to Central America instead.

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

One of the highlights of being of the week (besides volleyball!) was witnessing a torrential storm that battered the island and gave us a big show. The lightning was practically right on top of us, flashing and cracking so immediately after each bolt appeared that it was scaring the begeezus out of us and had the adrenaline coursing through our veins as we all looked on in awe. We even saw a bolt or two hit the ocean, which was really cool!

After the storm...

After the storm…

We finally decided to leave the lodge on Friday after four nights there, and we caught a ride to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, with some of the other guests who had a car. Instead of staying in Managua, I persuaded Marjolein to jump on a bus to Granada so we could spend the night there. I try to spend as little time as possible in capital cities because they tend to have more crime and therefore seem less safe. It turned out that we made a great choice because Granada on a Friday night was absolutely fabulous! We showered and each put on a dress and headed out for a girls’ date night. The main street was alive with live music, street vendors, and restaurants with outdoor seating. We picked The Garden Café where we had a delicious healthy dinner; later, we went to a different venue for the live music. Having so many options in a vibrant city was a big change from the isolated lodge on the island we had just come from.

The Calzada, Granda's main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

The Calzada, Granda’s main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

I immediately loved Granada. It is a Spanish colonial-style town with a laidback, coffee shop feel. There is a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, which is nice to see when some towns tend to be overrun by tourists. The male attention that we received was a prevalent part of the culture there, but for some reason, to me it didn’t seem as threatening as it did in the northern parts of the country since the men’s actions were less vicious, more playful, and maintained at a distance.

Another cultural observation I made in Nicaragua was regarding driving, honking, and transportation. In the United States, I had become accustomed to people only honking for road rage purposes when they get angry or frustrated at another driver; in India, I think all the people who are incessantly laying on their horns think that, by doing so, it might magically clear the streets or make people drive faster in the overwhelmingly congested streets. My personal experience with being honked at in Latin America can affirm that it is used as a really lame way to get a female’s attention—a sort of catcall. Of course these are generalizations, but the generalization I have for Nicaragua is that people are very cautious as they drive and use their horns mainly to notify other possible drivers in the area that they are approaching an intersection or attempting to join the flow of traffic. I found honking to rarely have disrespectful or angry undertones in Nicaragua.

Another note on transportation: cars and trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse-drawn carts share the road equally. It was neat to see so many locals on their bicycles cruising down the streets. It became as common as the rocking chairs! And Nicaragua is the only Latin American country I have been to where using horse-drawn carts for practical purposes and transportation in the cities as well as the rural areas is completely normal.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A few more cultural notes on Nicaragua are the following: 1) Baseball is the national sport. They are so into it! It was refreshing to be in a baseball country since I have been surrounded by nothing but soccer, soccer, and more soccer for the last couple of years. I’m not really much of a soccer fan, but I love me some baseball so finally I was in the right spot! And to see how women, men, kids, and adults alike shared their love and enthusiasm for the sport was heartwarming. 2) The Spanish language in Nicaragua is very casual (also using the informal “tú” form when speaking in second person). The people seem just as laidback as the way they speak, although the thicker, harder to understand Spanish (literally, the one that comes from Spain) accent seems to have infiltrated the Nicaraguan way of speaking more so than in any of the other Central American countries I visited. 3) Nicaraguans refer to themselves as “Nicas” for short.

To be continued…

Finally Home

I have actually been home for a couple weeks at this point, but I decided that it is finally time to come out of hiding. Since I have been home, I have kept a low profile in order to have some time and space to readjust. The transition has been relatively smooth in regards to my car, phone, accounts, insurances, finances, etc. since I arranged for everything to be maintained while I was away. It is interesting stepping back into the developed world because it seems to happen so naturally. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I frequently feel disconnected or out of place. I’m like a fish out of water but I am getting used to it and glad to be home.

In one sense, it almost feels like Guatemala was just a distant dream. On the other hand, I can feel it with me all the time as I constantly flashback to my life and memories there. I am not ready to just let it slip away from me, but it is challenging to find a way to incorporate such a meaningful experience into a society where everyone is too busy to deal with anything except for what is right in front of their faces. A place where stress, consumerism, and addiction to immediate results and gratification are the common currencies coursing through the veins of the American people in this time- and money-dictated world.

I am happy to be back in the United States of America. I left Guatemala on my own terms, for the most part, and I came home when I was ready. I had a grand adventure! And to be surrounded by loved ones again—to feel safe and protected—is something that I appreciate more than I ever expected to. However, it is definitely a big change from the life I have been living on my own for the last two and a half years. The “I have to take care of myself or no one else will” attitude and survival instincts that go along with it that I developed while living abroad are still very much with me, as well as the patience and calmness that were necessary for managing the unpredictable everyday occurrences in Guatemala. I think those are all good attributes to have, but it will probably take some time for people who knew me before to get used to the enhanced, perhaps different, person I am now. And vice versa. Lots of changes have occurred over two and a half years.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

The hardest thing I have been dealing with since being home is over-stimulation in every aspect. From spending so much time alone in peace and quiet whenever I felt like it to all of a sudden being surrounded by people who are excited to see me and tell me everything that is going on in their lives and then walking into a grocery store and being faced with like 40 different choices of yogurt, it has been overwhelming. It took me two weeks to even step foot into a grocery store; I just wished I could walk across the street to buy my eggs and milk. And one time I went to a shopping center to find a place to write and was faced with so many choices that I just didn’t pick any place and decided to leave. There is so much congestion of traffic and people and televisions and noise, but very little interaction. In Guatemala, we HAD to talk to people and touch people and live in a real, physically interactive environment. So I find that I am craving that on one hand and being oddly anti-social on the other hand.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn't get more for a couple weeks.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn’t get more for a couple weeks.

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn't bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese "island" near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of choices just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn’t bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese “island” near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of cheese just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

It has been extremely heartwarming to know that people want to see me, and I have felt so welcomed by most of those with whom I have been able to spend time already. Little by little, I am getting out and about and I really appreciate the patience and understanding that everyone has demonstrated while waiting for me to come around. I am very excited to get to everyone and hear what is going on in YOUR lives, and I have noted everyone who has individually contacted me expressing interest in meeting up. As I settle in and regain some structure in my life, I will be sure to set aside some quality time for correspondence or, when possible, in-person visits. Of course, this will not all happen overnight, but know that my heart is with all of you and I’m sending well-wishes your way for now. I haven’t even seen all of my family yet, but I am moving at a pace that is comfortable for me and eventually it will happen.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin's wedding just a few weeks ago.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister, Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin’s wedding just a few weeks ago.

Although I wasn’t originally intending to, I have decided to move back to Roseville (near Sacramento) with my mom for a while. Compared to the Bay Area, Roseville is a lot more laid back and less crowded, providing a calm, peaceful environment that will make for an easier transition, I am thinking. With a couple family members and close friends up there, I have a really nice support system, but at the same time, since I am not going back to the area where I was living and working immediately before joining the Peace Corps, I have the opportunity to start fresh again. I got hired (sooner than I expected) at a very nice restaurant called Suede Blue in Roseville and will start tomorrow, working mostly in the evenings. It will be nice to get back on my feet again and start earning some money so I have time to adjust and finish some personal projects without the burden of being completely broke and trying to make payments on student loans, insurances, other bills, etc.

100_7001

Part of my support system in the Sacramento area includes this bunch here with me at Apple Hill just over a week ago: My mom, my brother, Jeff, his awesome girlfriend, Tanya, and our family Golden Retriever, Savanna (my new running buddy).

Unfortunately, I did not finish my writing project before I came home. This was not entirely unexpected. My travels ended specifically because my cousin Robert set his wedding date for earlier in October, and I wanted to be there in person to show my support for him and his wife, Anita, on their special day. I tried very hard to write as much as possible in Central America before coming home because I feared that all of the distractions in the American society would prevent me from finishing, but I am not done yet. (Don’t worry: I will give the story a proper ending!) I have approximately eight chapters to go. They are all formed in my head and if I don’t get them out now, I might never finish the story. And then I will always be thinking about them and stressing over it. Not cool.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

As I expected, finding time to myself to write has proven to be a challenging endeavor, but now that I will have some structure in my schedule and be living in one place, I am determined to incorporate writing time into my life here in the USA—at least until I finish this writing project. I am not putting major pressure on myself, but I’m expecting to wrap it up around January. So even though I am home now, there is still more to the story. One benefit is that now I can incorporate some of the cultural aspects that may surface during this readjustment period which will add an enhanced perspective.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad's house, including this one--inside Safeway--that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE, (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad’s house, including this one–inside Safeway–that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

I’m in no rush, but some of the next steps—because that seems to be everyone’s favorite question for me right now—include studying for and taking the GRE (which is similar to the SAT, but for graduate school), researching grad schools and programs, fixing up my résumé, taking on another job perhaps in the Spring, fiddling with some other small personal endeavors and creative projects, and spending a lot of time with my family and best friends.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista's fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends, Kelly and Pedro, as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista’s fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

So for those of you who are still reading, I hope you are enjoying each chapter, and I promise you that some of my best chapters will be the final ones. Thank you for keeping me motivated to finish!

Love,

Alexandra

Previous Older Entries

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 676 other followers

Calendar of Posts

September 2015
S M T W T F S
« Aug    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 676 other followers