Friday, January 8, 2016

Aterrizaje

I have always wanted to visit Mexico, but never imagined that my first trip to the country would take the form that it did. For one thing, I always imagined I would go with my dad. I wanted to visit Monterrey, where the Mexican side of my family came from and where several relatives still live. We would stay with family or friends and get to see the region from a local’s perspective. What really happened was that Charlie's parents invited us to spend a week with them at a beach resort in Mazatlán where they had timeshare weeks to use. I didn't know much about Mazatlán other than the fact that it was a popular destination for American tourists, similar to Cancún or Cabo San Lucas. While this was very different from what I envisioned my first Mexico trip ­– my “heritage” trip, if you will – would be like, I was rather looking forward to a week of lazing about, getting high doses of vitamin D, and eating all the tacos.

We had a well-stocked mileage account with Delta thanks to our previous travels. For this reason, I chose to book a ludicrously long and arduous itinerary with them. I soon regretted that choice and would be kicking myself even harder on the two-stop return journey the following week. We had decided to use our miles to splurge on first-class tickets since this seemed to make long international flights more bearable. If you can afford it, a little physical comfort goes a long way during what is generally a fairly restrictive and uncomfortable way to travel. Our journey started with a red-eye flight departing Seattle at 12:35 AM destined for Minneapolis, of all places. There we would endure a four-hour layover, followed by another four-hour flight to Mazatlán. The first leg of our journey was on an older plane with surprisingly uncomfortable seats for a first class experience. As a result, we barely slept a wink. The only good thing about the seemingly illogical connection was that we got to eat Shanghai noodles at an airport restaurant called Shoyu. It had been recommended by a musician friend who flew through there frequently and ended it up being the best airport food I have ever had.

By the time the second leg of the flight commenced I was exhausted enough to doze off, only to be periodically shaken awake by turbulence. When my body finally gave up on sleeping, I was disappointed to find that only two of the four hours of flight had elapsed. Soon after, the captain announced that we had crossed into Mexico. I leaned over Charlie to get a glimpse of it out the window and saw the barren brownness of the Sonoran desert, veined with the snaking patterns of dried riverbeds. Later, when Charlie got up from his seat to use the lavatory, I took advantage and occupied his empty space, pressing myself against the window as we approached the low greenish foothills where the Sonora meets the western Sierra Madre. The geological features of this area were magnificent. Dark green trees blanketed even the steepest, most serrated edges of the sierra (which also means “saw” in Spanish, by the way). As we moved deeper into the system, the ridges became pointier and the raised areas more folded over one another like a pleated fabric. Occasionally, and in the remotest of areas, a little village would appear atop one of these seemingly impassible areas, in the tiniest of clearings where the ground was just level enough to press together a few modest dwellings. I tried to imagine what life would be like for those people. I knew that at one point my grandmother had lived in a similar place called Mata de Guaje, a tiny community on the outskirts of Monterrey.

As we neared Mazatlán, the sierra began to lie down into vast expanses of bright green farmland. On the horizon was the shining Pacific Ocean, which looked like a band of deep grayish blue set firmly atop the edge of the land. As the plane descended over the fields in the direction of the runway, I saw fast flashes of tiny wooden huts, farm machinery, and other evidence of occupation.

We landed without incident and were ushered through a painless immigration and customs procedure with the usual humorless staff one encounters during these situations. As soon as we were cleared, we exited and were immediately given a sales pitch by an aggressive but slick timeshare salesperson. We didn’t even realize it until he invited us to give him one hour of our time. We declined and instead proceeded to the lobby to meet our driver, a short, broad and very cheerful man named Juanito. He made sure our documents were in order and inquired as to why I could speak Spanish. When he asked whether Charlie knew any, I told him that he worked in a kitchen and had only learned the bad words. Juanito found this very amusing.

While waiting for a few more passengers on our transport to clear customs, we chatted with a nice couple from Virginia who were staying at the same resort as us, the Mayan Palace. They gave us a few pointers for places to eat and activities. Then another tourist wrangler appeared and led us all outside and onto a large charter bus. Out the window, a jeep full of camouflage-dressed, heavily armed Sinaloa state police sped by.

The drive seemed long, but probably didn’t exceed 40 minutes. I looked out the window the whole time, observing locals going to a fro, analyzing the different types of dwellings and businesses. These varied from brightly painted, well-maintained, gated buildings to falling down wooden sheds draped with holey tarps and cardboard. Smatterings of mostly unintelligible graffiti decorated countless walls. The one spray painted tag that stood out to me read, “SKELETOR”. We even drove by a prison complex that had an unnecessarily long name painted in large black letters on one outward facing stone wall. When literally translated, it read something like, “Center for Carrying Out Legal Punishments against Crimes” and underneath, very simply, “Mazatlán Penitentiary.”

When we finally arrived at the resort, a swarm of bellboys on the cusp of being bellmen, who were dressed in blue guayaberas, came out to greet us. It became immediately obvious that they were trying to pile on the courtesy in hopes of earning tips. We tried to insist on schlepping our own luggage so that we wouldn’t bankrupt ourselves paying for simple things we were able-bodied enough to do. The check-in process was long, but the staff was courteous. One of the bellboys escorted us to the suite we would share with Charlie’s parents on the ninth floor of one of the resorts three buildings.

The lobby, pool area, restaurant, and multiple lounges we passed along the way gave us the impression that we were staying in much nicer place than we would ever try to afford on our own. However, when we exited the elevator on the ninth floor, the property immediately took on a feel of a low- to middle-class high-rise apartment building. Our flat was just around the corner and as soon as the bellboy opened the door, the smell of mildew assaulted my nostrils. This odor is typical of places near the ocean, but I have never stayed in a place where it was quite this strong. The bellboy left and we surveyed the scene. It wasn’t dirty, but all of the flooring and furnishings were so old that they looked dirty anyway. One room had a rock-hard king size bed, which would go to Tony and Elena. The other room was dark and windowless and contained a shabby, deflated twin-size sofa bed with a low trundle that could be pulled out next to it. Since the height of these sleeping surfaces differed by about eight inches, cuddling would be out of the question. There were no sheets either. We contemplated sleeping in separate sections on the marginally more comfortable looking L-shaped couch. Our bigger concern was the lack of accessibility. Charlie’s mother Elena uses a wheelchair and would have a hard time maneuvering through the tight spaces of this flat. We didn’t think Charlie’s parents would be pleased when they arrived.

It was about an hour and a half before the parents got to the resort and we spent much of it sitting on the nice furniture in the lobby, swinging at a mosquito that kept trying to land on us. At one point, a young female staff member with a pith helmet walked by. Her unusual headware caught my attention and I inadvertently stared at her. She noticed me, made eye contact, and then held my gaze for longer than was comfortable. Charlie noticed this and then we discussed whether she was looking at him or me (but it was obviously me). I was totally getting a gay vibe from her.

When Tony and Elena arrived, we exchanged warm greetings and then explained the situation about the room. Charlie’s dad, Tony, went to the desk to try to straighten things out since he had called weeks ahead to specifically request an accessible room with a walk-in shower. Those particular rooms were booked up for the next two weeks, of course, but they managed to secure another that would suffice for the evening. Charlie and I would remain in the originally assigned flat that night and the following day we would consolidate into another suite that was better suited to Elena’s needs.

Once the parents were squared away, we reconvened in the lobby to eat dinner at the resort’s main restaurant. The food was decent, but not as amazing as the price indicated it should be. The service was maddeningly slow for how empty it was and our hunger only augmented our annoyance. It took several suggestive stares from each person at our table to get the waitstaff to bring the bill. Bellies full, we retired to our respective rooms for the evening. Charlie lay down on the rock-hard king size bed with his still-shoed feet hanging off the edge and was snoring within five minutes. Shortly after, I settled into the musty linens for what I hoped would not be a fitful night of back torture.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Reason I Do This: My Abuela

Before I tell you about my trip to Mexico, I want to tell you about my grandmother, Evangelina Garcia, who immigrated to the U.S. from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico with her husband, Enrique, in the early forties. I began thinking about and planning this entry more than four years ago, when she had yet again taken ill. It seemed more serious that time, like she might not pull through. I began to reflect on my experiences with her throughout my life and what she had meant to me. In doing so, I discovered that she had been a huge impetus behind who I am now and, in a way, she has been responsible for many of the wonderful experiences I have had over the last several years. She is even partially responsible for the existence of this blog and, as such, merits recognition. She passed away on June 6, 2012. I only hope this story does her justice.

Much of my relationship with my grandmother was fraught with verbal miscommunication. She only spoke Spanish, and English was my first language. Although I had almost daily exposure to Spanish as a very young child, I didn't really begin speaking it until I was fourteen. 

Moments of linguistic confusion dot my early memories of being around my grandmother. To begin with, my extended family called her Abuela (Grandma) and pronounced it in such a way that I always heard it as 'Uela (which I imagined was spelled "Wayla"). Since I didn't know the word, I just assumed that "Wayla" was her name. I didn't learn that her name was actually Evangelina until I was verging on adolescence. My grandfather, Enrique (aka 'Uelo), was slightly more proficient at English. He was gregarious and sweet and was always laughing. He had thick white hair, was blind and wore big dark glasses. He was also a talented woodworker and his creations decorated my childhood home. Whenever I came to their house, he would pull me onto his lap, run his hand over my face and say in his thick accent, "You are so beeyooteefull!"

Despite not literally understanding much of what my grandmother said to me early on, I learned a lot about her through our interactions. I knew she could cook, even though I was picky and just assumed I wouldn't like her food a lot of the time. Boy, was I mistaken! Her house always smelled like fried meat, tortillas, and the garlands of garlic that hung in her pantry. I watched her make tortillas and coveted the heavy, black molcajete she kept in a low cabinet in her kitchen. Now that was an impressive piece of kitchenware! I didn't actually know what it was for until I was much older though. I remember wondering why on earth she had a bowl with a rock in it in the kitchen. It seemed huge to me when I was a kid and was difficult to lift. It was rough, made of some kind of porous, volcanic rock, and the pestle was shaped like a pointy egg. I liked to roll it around inside the mortar so that it made a satisfying stone-on-stone sound. 

In addition to cooking, she loved feeding people, especially children. While I was often ungrateful about what she served me, I could see how excited she was to serve it. One of the first phrases I learned from her was "¿Quieres?" (Do you want some?). She used to make up silly songs about what she was preparing, with lyrics like "Macalón, macalón..." (a song about macaroni and cheese). My favorite song was the one she would sing when she would make Kool-Aid. She would add the ingredients into a big plastic container, put the lid on and then shake it rhythmically while chanting, "Culei, culei, culei..." The children under her care would look on in anticipation for the sweet drink they were about to enjoy. One of my earliest memories is of one occasion when my maternal cousin Mindy came with us to my grandparents' house. Mindy was still pretty small and was being held in someone's arms at the entrance to the kitchen. There my grandmother stood shaking the aforementioned plastic jug, singing the Kool-Aid song. She paused, smiling at Mindy. "¿Quieres?" she asked her. Mindy started to cry.

She seemed to love children, as if that wasn't obvious by the fact that she bore fourteen of her own, eleven of whom survive. She babysat my brother and I when we were very young and always seemed cheerful when we visited. She sometimes watched other people's children too. I could also tell that she was very proud of her own children and grandchildren. The walls of her small home and every horizontal surface were absolutely covered with pictures of her family, almost to the point of clutter. Her photos ranged from old, black and white images of classy-looking, attractive relatives, to the brightly colored ones of the newest born additions to her ever-growing legacy.

Enrique and Evangelina on their wedding day

Although she loved children, she had a very low tolerance for nonsense, especially when her telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas) were on. She could often be found her lying on her side on the couch, engrossed in these shows. When someone would get out of line, in particular when children started fighting with each other, she would prop herself up on one elbow and grab one of her dreaded chanclas (house shoes). She would raise it above her head and yell orders in Spanish. Whatever she yelled was unintelligible to my brother and me at the time, but we knew what she meant. Sometimes she yelled a word that sounded like, "¡State!" (pronounced STAH-tay), which we knew meant "Knock it off!" I think she may have actually been saying something like stápate, a Spanglish construction consisting of "stop it" pronounced with a Spanish accent and -te, meaning "you". I never actually saw her strike anyone with her chancla, but no one dared call her bluff.

Her home decor also showed that she was religious. My favorite items in her home were pieces of religious decor because, in true Mexican style, they were brightly colored and sparkly. My favorite object to examine in her house was a small, folding triptych that she had on one of her end tables. I don't remember what it had on it, but I think it had something to do with the Virgin Mary. Before going down for the naps she would make us take, I would see her kneel at the side of her bed, hands folded in prayer. At the end, she would kiss a little gold cross on a chain. It may have been a necklace or a rosary - I don't remember clearly. In addition to being religious, she was also superstitious and had nailed a horseshoe over the front door for good luck.

She was adept at sewing. In one corner stood a beautiful treadle sewing machine. The machine itself was black and gold and built into a gorgeous wood cabinet with decorative embellishments. Below was an ornate, heavy black wrought-iron treadle. I loved crawling under it and rocking the treadle back and forth with my hands to make the wheel spin. When I was older, she also taught me embroidery and gave me an old green cookie tin full of thread, needles, fabric, and an embroidery hoop so that I could work on my projects at home.

While I didn't know much about her history, there was plenty that I could tell about her just by her appearance. I knew she had had a physically strenuous life, probably due to the hard physical work she had done over the years and the number of children she had borne and reared. She tipped back and forth like a penguin when she walked, as if her knees didn't really bend. I loved her long, black hair and I think she did too. She always had it in a braid or in a bun and sometimes braided my hair too. When I was older I resolved to keep my hair long when I was an old lady, just like her. For most of my childhood, she only had one tooth, and later on someone provided her with dentures. She had lots of wrinkles on her face that amplified her expressions of joy and would put the fear of God into you when she was angry. I once saw her cry very briefly, shortly after my grandfather moved into his own place. I knew he had moved, and I might have even had a vague understanding about why, but for some reason felt compelled to ask her about it (as if I could even understand her answer). "Where's grandpa?" I asked. She didn't answer with words, but with a sudden, loud sob, turning away from me and dropping her face into her open hands. I felt terrible for asking. My grandfather passed away in 1993.

Enrique and Evangelina

After I had learned to read in English, I became more curious about my grandmother's language and how to go about communicating with her. I remember occasionally asking my dad how to say different things. The only phrase that stuck was "¿Cómo está?" (How are you?), and I used it every time we saw her during our greeting hug. I started to pay attention to the other Spanish words I would hear and tried to discern both their spelling and their meaning just from context. I was usually way off on both accounts.

Most of the notable Spanish words I heard were uttered during exchanges between my dad and my uncle Frank. Perhaps they stood out because they were said in an exaggerated way and were usually swearwords, insults, or components of dirty jokes. Once in a while I would repeat these words with the full knowledge that I might get in trouble for doing so. I never did, but my dad would visibly tense up, his eyes would widen and he would command sternly, "Don't EVER say that in front of your grandma!" Unfortunately, most of the words I learned prior to taking proper language classes carried this warning. I wasn't the only Garcia child to have heard it either. One summer during a family camping trip I called my cousin a pendejo (dumbass). He asked me, "Do you even know what that means?"
"No," I admitted sheepishly.
"Well, you shouldn't say it if you don't know what it means. And definitely don't say it in front of grandma."

My freshman year of high school arrived and Spanish was finally being offered at my school. I enrolled with the express purpose of eventually being able to communicate with my grandmother. I excelled in class because I loved it, and classmates often looked to me for help with their own work, even the kids who spoke Spanish as a first language. At last I had acquired a few basic phrases that I could use to communicate with my grandma and made a few shy attempts to do so. They were simple things like introducing a friend to her, offering her food or drink, or just getting through basic salutations and small talk. She taught me a couple of words along the way that I might not have picked up given the European leanings of the Spanish taught in most American schools. At one family party when I brought her a plate of food, she asked me to bring her a trinche. I looked at her blankly, embarrassed that I didn't know this word. "¿Un trinche?" I asked, repeating the word back to her to make sure I had heard it correctly. "Sí." I was at a loss, so I asked her what it was. "TE-NE-DOR," she enunciated in a loud, annoyed voice. I knew that word. It meant "fork".

I began to appreciate her sense of humor, which I had never been able to grasp before. One year during Christmas, we were sitting together talking while she enjoyed a beer. She suddenly realized she was missing something and began looking around in her chair and on the floor. "What did you lose?" I asked. Right then she patted her front shirt pocket and a look of relief graced her face. She reached in and pulled out the missing object. It was her dentures. We both had a good laugh. Another time I went to her house for a visit with my dad. As usual, she was watching Univision, the major Spanish language network that broadcasts in the U.S. We all happened to look at the television the exact moment the screen displayed a well-endowed blond woman jogging on a beach in slow motion, à la Baywatch. My grandmother giggled and said something I didn't understand, cupped her palms upward in front of her, and raised and lowered each hand in an alternating fashion to imitate the bouncing of the woman's breasts.

Once I was competent enough to do so, I would make it a point to try to converse a bit with my grandmother every time I saw her. I actually knew very few details about her life and was anxious to find out more, and it wasn't until I was in college that we were able to have a mutually comprehensible dialogue.

Evangelina and her sister Lucita

Unfortunately, my grandmother spent the last couple years of her life in a state of poor health and permanent confusion. Sometimes when I would visit her she wouldn't know who I was and that was really disappointing. But it hurt more to see a woman who had always been tough as nails reduced to a frail, immobile little old lady. As a young child, I remember sometimes thinking she was mean, probably because of her incomprehensible yelling while wielding a chancla. Seeing her in her final years made me wish she was mean again. Despite this, she was still her old self in the better ways, always joking and giving people hell. I could understand her fully by that point and actually managed to learn a lot about her past from listening to her phase in and out of different periods of her life. Her dementia acted as a non-chronological narrator of her history.

Wanting to know my grandmother more deeply sparked my desire to learn Spanish. After a while, I got pretty good at it. About eleven years ago I moved to Spain, where I got really good at it. During that trip I also got my first translation job by accident and, while working on it, had an epiphany that this was what I wanted to do for a living. While abroad I was also bitten by the travel bug and infected with an incurable wanderlust. As a result, I have now traveled to ten different countries, at a rate of about one per year, and have dabbled in the languages of each. I created this blog so that I can better reflect on my experiences and share them with other people. I hope that this work can bring about some sort of understanding, however superficial, between different people and their cultures.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Good 'Ol U.S. of A. Never Disappoints

It was departure day. We woke early and managed to be first in the restaurant for coffee and breakfast. We spoke to the woman working the lounge about our imminent departure and she had no idea we were scheduled to leave that day. We asked about settling our bill but were told we'd have to wait until Melanie got up at eight o'clock. We were supposed to leave at nine. There was nothing else to do except head back to our room to shower and get our stuff together. While packing, we abandoned the two ponchos and cheap flashlights we had bought on Ambergris Caye, along with a pair of Cha's shoes that had been used for cave tubing a week earlier and still had not dried.

We returned to the bar to settle our bill. Marie and Jayson had turned up for breakfast so we sat with them for a bit. Then we discovered that Loudmouth and Blondie would be taking the airport shuttle with us that morning and, of course, they were running late. The four of us executed a collective eye roll. When it was finally time to leave, we said goodbye to our Canadian friends and hopped in the van. We strategically sat in the back so that the sound of their voices would point away from us. Instead, they turned around to talk to us pretty much the whole way there. After 30 minutes on the rough Northern Highway, I began to feel carsick. I asked the driver if I could sit up front and he promptly pulled over so that I could switch seats, turning up the A/C so that it blasted my face the remainder of the ride. I'm guessing someone has barfed in the van before.

Poor Charlie was left to attend to the talkative women, but fortunately they were pleasant enough. We got to the airport and immediately entered a gift shop where we bought 11 bottles of Marie Sharps hot sauce in a variety of flavors. The airport is tiny, so we were able to check in quickly and go through security. There was only one woman in front of us. She was about to go through the scanner but wasn't sure if she needed to remove her hoodie before doing so. She tugged on one side of it and, misspeaking, asked the security officer, "Do I need to take my clothes off?" His eyes widened and a coy smile crept onto his face. He began to joke and flirt with the now visibly embarrassed woman. He also exchanged a few words with his nearby colleague in Creole, which, judging from the tone, were not fit for polite company. Charlie and I made it through without incident.

We sat in the waiting area playing FreeCell and watching two cute toddlers explore. We boarded the plane and were immediately served decent food (for once), and slept. I was a little nervous about our transfer through Atlanta because of the terrible experience I had had there when returning from Argentina the year before. As we approached passport control, we saw that the line was immensely long and Charlie swore loudly in response. Then we figured out that the long line was the one for foreigners and ours was much shorter. Just then, an announcement came over the loud speaker saying that the computer systems were down, which did not bode well for the timeliness of our connection.

The passport control officer was nice as he processed our entry. When he swiped Charlie's passport, he paused for an uncomfortably long period and then asked Charlie to verify his birthday. Charlie's passport was well worn after regular use over many years and I was concerned that its barcodes were no longer readable. I felt my blood pressure rise and I held my breath for a moment. Fortunately, all it was was the aforementioned computer problem causing the verification to take a long time. He stamped our customs form and sent us on our way. Then we picked up our suitcases and handed the customs form to the white-haired man at the checkpoint. He waived us through without further ado.

We rechecked our baggage and had to go through security again. While waiting in line, we realized we had a big bottle of water and a bottle of coke, so we tried to drink them as quickly as possible before going through. My bottle of water had pressurized slightly during the flight, and when I opened it, it shot water out of the opening and onto the bare ankle of an unamused man standing in line in front of me. I apologized and explained that it was only water. He remained unamused. We made it through security rather quickly and found our connecting gate. The whole ordeal took less than 20 minutes, to my shock and relief. In fact, I was thoroughly impressed with Atlanta's efficiency and courtesy this time.

The TVs at the gate were showing the news, which reported an active shooter at a hospital in Reno. Charlie sighed. "Welcome home," he said. We made it back to Seattle fine and then were dismayed at the clusterfuck taking shape at the curbside pickup area where our friend Whitney would be collecting us. Everyone had forgotten how to move in relation to one another, both on foot and in car. Charlie yelled. Someone yelled back. When Whitney finally found us she was so stressed that I took over driving. Somehow, we survived the ordeal and made it home safely.

That concludes the Belize saga. Stay tuned for MEXICO!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Foooooood Fiiiiiiiiight!!!!!

We ran into Jayson and Marie at breakfast and they invited us to join them. We had a great discussion about the common TV shows we were all fans of and American politics (in particular, our healthcare system compared to Canada's) and found that we were pretty much in agreement about things across the board. We felt a little bad for the other diners who had to listen to all of this, so Charlie apologized to everyone except Mrs. Loudmouth, who was dining alone that morning. 

The four of us decided to go hiking around in the bush around the resort. Along the way, we discussed the weirdness of the resort, like how there were dicks everywhere and that we suspected it was intended as a sex club. We also marveled at how dangerous all of the decor was. At this, they wanted to show us their "Chapel Suite" room, which looked exactly like it sounds. It had vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and a dark red color scheme. Jayson wondered aloud how anyone was supposed to have sex in there. They also pointed out that the walls were made of jagged rocks and decorated with fragments of broken bottles with sharp edges sticking out, just waiting to snag a passerby.

Chapel Suite

The only thing we really saw on our bush trek was a tree full of a half dozen vultures and a sizable dead locust that someone had taken the trouble of perching on top of a path-side light fixture.


"And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power." - Revelations 9:3

We weren't able to venture very far because the rain had turned the already marshy land into a treacherous swamp. We didn't have the right shoes for such a trek and decided to call it a day when Charlie accidentally stepped into a bog up to his knee, mistaking some sponge-like undergrowth for solid ground. We had scheduled facials that afternoon anyway, and needed to shower beforehand.

One of the same masseuses from the day before, along with another unknown female staff member collected us from the lounge and led us back out to the spa area. They were just as silent as the women had been the day before. We carefully tread across the sharp rocks and climbed onto the same too-hard massage tables. Both of us became restless and squirmy about halfway through the facials as the massage tables began to take their toll on our backs.

These weren't so much what I would call facials as they were a food fight on our face. The treatment commenced with a cleansing with an almost unscented soap that I suspected to be regular hand soap or dish detergent. Each product application was rinsed with a warm cloth smelling of allspice, followed by a washcloth dipped in lemon scented ice water so cold that I nearly came off the table when it was applied my face. Then, I kid you not, they straight up peeled a banana, cut it in half, and rubbed the flat end of it all over our faces like a giant glue stick. After this, our skin was exfoliated with a handful of sugar. Next, they applied some soft clay mud, put cucumber slices over our eyes, and then commenced massaging our feet and lower legs with the same mosquito repellent oil from the day before while we waited for the mud to dry. As it dried it began to itch. I kept scrunching up my face to help crack up the thick coating so that it didn't itch so badly. The final touch was a layer of pure honey, the remnants of which mingled in my hairline with all the other ingredients that hadn't quite been washed off all the way. I spent the rest of the day scratching at it and picking out the dried bits of the fruit salad mud pie that they prepared on my mug. Any time I licked my lips, I got a sweet surprise from the substances dried in the corners of my mouth. Although it was a little bizarre as far as spa treatments go, it still managed to be a relaxing and pampering experience.

It had been a while since breakfast and, after all the food smells so near our noses we were ravenous. We headed into the dining room where we ate room-temperature BBQ chicken, another dose of nachos with canned cheese, plain white rice, and what we recognized as leftovers of the heart-of-palm salad that had been served as an appetizer at dinner the evening before. Maya the wiener dog made her rounds, visiting each table in hopes of receiving food, love, or both. She was probably the most charming small dog I had ever met. We asked our server whether the staff had quarters at the resort where they stayed between shifts. She said, "No, it stinks out here." I wasn't sure if she was literally referring to the odors at the resort, not that I perceived any other than the slightly mildewy bedding, or whether this represented her overall opinion of the place. I went to the lounge so that I could check us in for our flight online. Then I volunteered to talk to the owner about arranging an airport shuttle for the following day since he seemed to respond better to women. I had to wait for him to get off the phone, during which he mentioned to the person on the other end that heavy rain was expected. When he hung up, I approached him about the airport shuttle. He was very helpful to me indeed, and throughout the conversation it would have been apropos to remind him, "My eyes are up here."

We headed to the dick pool for a little relaxation and found Jayson and Marie just leaving after a sunbathing stint. We agreed to meet up for dinner so that we could exchange contact info before we left the resort. Charlie settled in with his book and a smoke. I took the opportunity to photograph one of the resort's most bizarre decorative elements. As I mentioned in the post about our arrival, hibiscus flowers appeared to grace just about every surface indoors and were used to garnish nearly every plate of food and every drink. But I realized that this wasn't just an indoor thing. The staff had been painstakingly decorating the outdoors with hibiscus flowers too, including affixing them to other non-flowering plants by stabbing their stems through that plant's leaves. You could see dozes of instances of this along every walking path and all around the dining and pool areas. Where were they getting all of these flowers? How did they have time to do this?! I gotta say, they never lacked attention to detail.

Seriously, what the hell?

A book, a smoke, and some tropical scenery

Taking it easy

Outdoor chessboard with stone chairs

A live locust. Hand for scale. Not my hand, that's for damn sure.

It appeared that a storm was rolling in, so we decided to take cover on our veranda so that we could shoot the final tasting notes for Smoking in the Park. And now, without further ado...


A downpour began, just as the owner's phone conversation foretold. We relaxed on the veranda for a bit. Charlie smoked and I attempted to clean what looked like a dusting of green mold from the giant wooden penis that Charlie had purchased in the gift shop.

Boy for scale

Polishing my shaft

We met Jayson and Marie in the dining room, where ridiculous belly dance music was playing over the speakers. We had a great long conversation about everything in the world. We knew these two had a few years on us, but we had a whole lot in common despite the age gap. The question about whether we planned to have children came up. We said no, to which Jayson responded, "Good for you!" I think that was the first time someone had responded so positively to the divulging of that information. Our meal lasted nearly three hours. 

Charlie ordered bananas flambé for dessert which came arranged on the plate with the banana in the middle and a scoop of ice cream on either side of it so that it resembled, you guessed it, a cock and balls. Not only this, but the syrupy rum sauce had been drizzled in such a way that it appeared to be ejaculating. Our server set down the flaming plate and then tried to sneak away as the table erupted in laughter. Charlie coaxed the poor embarrassed girl back to the table and asked her what the deal was with all the dicks. She giggled as she told us they were supposed to be fertility symbols and asked whether we had noticed the penis and sperms tiled on the floor of the main pool. I asked her who the mastermind was behind all of the phallic symbolism and she confirmed that it was the male half of the ownership team. "I knew it!" I exclaimed, realizing at that moment that he was sitting in his office adjacent to the dining room, well within earshot of our table.

We paid our bills and then showed Jayson and Marie our bohemian room before parting ways for the evening. We are still in occasional contact with these two, and hope to visit them in Ottawa during our travels someday.

Then Charlie and I turned in since we had to get an early start to make the journey back into Belize City in time for our flight home the following day.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Marie to the Third Degree

Charlie and I rose with the sun and went to breakfast. That day's Lamanai visitors were already in the restaurant eating before their trip. Two women who would be on the tour showed up quite late, also wanting to grab a bite. The tour guide informed them that the van would be leaving in five minutes. One of the women responded with a simple, "No."

Oooookay.

The tour guide looked bewildered and just walked away. The hot-tubbing Blondie from the other night and her loud mother came and sat right next to us. Blondie wore full makeup and a leather jacket. Who wears a leather jacket in the jungle?! Charlie and I were checking e-mail on our tablet while we waited for our food. Mrs. Loudmouth noticed and complained to her daughter that today's youth was too dependent on technology. Adding irony to insult, she mentioned how much she liked the sexy lounge music that played at all hours of the day. Personally, I would have preferred to listen to howler monkeys and other jungle sounds. A recently arrived Canadian couple sat nearby. They began watching a video with sound on their device. We later found out that this was in response to the woman's loudness and passive aggression. She asked them to turn it off, so they did. Then we all had to listen to her yammer to her daughter about how generous she was being with the poor natives here. Her daughter responded with a comment about how she had tipped the man who packed her bags for her. You read that right. Packed. Her. Bags. We felt sorry for the other Lamanai tourists who would be stuck with this pair all day long.

Found this little fella on the bannister outside our room

After breakfast, we showered in preparation for our couples' massage. We returned to the lobby to meet our masseuses, where we found Richard and Gail getting ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and then two masseuses wearing leopard print robes greeted us. Go figure. One was smiley and friendly and the other frowned the whole time. Both remained almost silent throughout the whole ordeal.

The spa area sat on one edge of the resort and was just an open air hut with translucent curtains. It would be easy for anyone passing by to see our naked asses on the massage tables. For what I assume to be artistic design reasons, the floor of the massage room was a bed of jagged gray pebbles. So before indulging in relaxation, we had to tiptoe our naked asses across this torture chamber. Then we had to climb onto the too-tall massage tables with tiny stones stabbing into the bottom of our feet. 

The massage tables were pretty hard and I suspected they weren't real massage tables at all. The music was also way too loud. It bombarded us with the likes of Enya, some Hare Krishna chanting, and rain and thunder sounds. Despite this, the massages were pretty good. These were "aromatherapy" massages, so they just doused us in citronella oil. I guess it made sense in the mosquito ridden climate. I was also pretty sure I had seen my masseuse working as one of the housekeeping staff. This meant that she had strong hands and sandpapery fingertips to scratch all the mosquitos bites on my legs. 

Afterward, we had lukewarm but delicious Belizean stewed chicken and nachos. We were certain the cheese had come from a can. Good thing I like canned cheese. Once we were full, we wandered the grounds, exploring and looking for a good place to shoot "Smoking in the Park." We found the resort's little chapel and went in to check it out. The fact that it was a Christian chapel surprised me. I half expected to find a temple to Rati, the Hindu goddess of love, carnal desire, lust, passion and sexual pleasure.

Resort chapel

Chapel interior

We shot a few segments of Smoking in the Park and then Charlie decided to take a break from smoking (shocking!) and swim in the dick design pool. He has a bad habit of opening his eyes in the pool. The citronella oil from the massage ran into them when he swam, so his eyes were beet red and his vision was blurry. Cha opted for a break from swimming and resumed smoking while I played FreeCell. 

Sperm mosaic

Contemplating the mysteries of the universe


We went back to the room for a shower and to finish the cigar. I scratched myself for the umpteenth time on a godforsaken decorative pillow. It had sharp metallic sequins and hard beads sewn onto it and assaulted anyone who came into contact with it.

This pillow can fuck right off.

We heard a small crowd of people pass by our building, signaling the return of the Lamanai tour. We headed to the restaurant for dinner where I saw several familiar faces. Tracy, the young man who had disappeared with Blondie the other night, sat at the bar. The Canadians from breakfast were dining at a table. I had overheard that the Canadian woman's name was Marie. In fact, a third Marie staying at the resort as well, although I never found out who she was. I only encounter other Maries once in a blue moon so I thought I should introduce myself. I walked up to their table and broke the ice by asking them to keep it down the way Mrs. Loudmouth had that morning. We all laughed and exchanged statements like, "I know! Can you believe those two?!" We all introduced ourselves and we learned that they were Marie and Jason of Ottowa. They had enjoyed their excursion that day, but said that the mother-daughter duo had been rude during the tour. Quelle surprise.

And speak of the devil, right then the two walked in. Mrs. Loudmouth and Blondie sauntered over to the bar and sat next to Tracy. Something negative must have transpired since their first "hang-out" session. They neither looked at nor exchanged words with one another. The awkward tension was palpable as Blondie checked her e-mail and Tracy read his menu very, very hard.

Dinner that evening was better than normal, and the service moved along at a less sluggish pace. We left satisfied and went back to our room. From our balcony we could hear howler monkeys calling to one another in the distance. It was a haunting, awesome way to end the day.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Call of the Howler Monkey

We woke early for a river boat excursion. We would visit the archeological site Lamanai, a large ancient city in northern Belize. We sped through breakfast, thinking that we were holding up the tour. Charlie attempted to ask the owner, Nicky, about the trip. Nicky responded to him the same way I had seen him respond to other men. He spoke in a low, almost inaudible voice. He avoided eye contact, turning his body away as if he had better things to do than talk to another man. When it came to women, he was always friendly and helpful. For a dick decor connoisseur, he was downright frosty to other humans who actually had dicks. 

As it turned out, we were on time for the excursion. We found ourselves waiting in the van with a nice couple whose names were Richard and Gail. A third couple, who had arrived the night before, dragged ass and made us all wait. I know it's wrong to judge a book by its cover, but I was immediately annoyed at them when I saw them. The man was a middle aged douche bro. The lady had giant fake balloons on her chest and was wearing shorts that left little to the imagination. They spent the day appearing to compete with each other and everyone else. They had to be the first to climb to the top of every structure we encountered.

When we got into the van, we found a brochure in the seat pound with a photo that looked awfully familiar. It showed a man posing much in the way I had made Charlie pose on our bed (as a joke) the day we arrived. They were taking the sexiness a little too seriously. This only furthered our suspicions that they intended for the resort to be a sex club.

Charlie unknowingly imitated the sexy pose in the resort's brochure.

The segment of the Northern Highway beyond Maruba was even worse than the segment we had taken to get there. The fact that it had been raining only exacerbated the situation. The van fought through big muddy trenches and small ponds, doing its best not to get stuck. We definitely had a few close calls.

Rough, muddy road

We passed through the village of Santa Martha. It was a tiny community of about six hundred residents. There we saw several traditional Mayan huts and lots of front-yard livestock. Goats, cows, skinny horses, and chickens grazed near the dwellings.

Mayan hut in Santa Martha

We passed several unexcavated Mayan sites. They were just uncharacteristic low mounds rising out of an otherwise flat area. Vegetation and millennia of soil had accumulated on top of them. I would have walked right by them completely unawares. These types of sites are commonplace in Central and South America. Local governments often lack the resources to fund full-scale excavations and archeological studies. Many sites suffer damage and erosion from visitors and the elements. It is a constant, expensive fight to keep the jungle from creeping back in. Otherwise, it would swallow up the structures all over again. Even famous, important sites remain somewhat unexcavated due to lack of funding.

Along the way we also encountered a sprawling papaya orchard and a limestone quarry.

Papayas on the tree

We arrived at the river boat tour establishment along the New River. We emerged from the van with broken backs and well-shaken bladders in need of emptying. Unoccupied dudes lounged in the shade everywhere. Kids watched TV in huts. A sweet-eyed mama dog sought affection and food from visitors. Nearby, children inundated her puppies with affection.

A man named Nathaniel herded our group onto a boat. He was our captain and took the time to learn everyone's name before the journey began. Our trip would take 90 minutes or so and Nathaniel would help us to spot local wildlife along the way. He spoke in a clear, meticulous manner, taking time to pronounce the names of the animals we spotted. It felt as if we were students of another language. I suspect that this was so no one could complain that they could not understand his Belizean accent.

A shot of the calm river

First, Nathaniel took us to visit a spider monkey that lived alone on an island in the middle of the river. At one time he had had a female companion, but she died. He couldn't swim and evaded the forest service when they attempted to check on his welfare or move him. The monkey had learned that approaching tour boats meant free food. He swung himself through the dense greenery to meet us at the water's edge. We each fed him half a banana, which he gobbled up, tossing the peels aside to free up his hand for the next one.



Here you go, little buddy.

Nom nom nom

All of a sudden, Nathaniel's stoicism gave way to excitement. He pointed out two rarely spotted black-collared hawks perched on a riverside tree. He told us that this was a 1000-point bird in birdwatching terms.

A "1000-point" black-collared hawk perched in a tree while its partner takes flight

Next we cruised by the now-defunct New River Cove, a private drug rehab center. Several large iguanas sunned themselves on the concrete walls surrounding the facilities. Later we saw a few large bats hung upside down in the shade of a riverside tree.

Wild iguana sunning himself at the rehab center

The boat slowed as we neared Lamanai. While docking, I noticed several trees draped with green snake-like cactuses along the riverbank. Nathaniel said the locals called this fascinating plant "devil's guts cactus" or "snake cactus." I tried to find information about it later but couldn't find the specific species. I do know it is in the hylocereeae tribe and I suspect it may in fact be selenicereus testudo. But hey, I'm no botanist.

"Devil's guts cactus"

The group climbed out of the boat and hauled a bunch of coolers to the picnic area outside the visitors' center. The tour included lunch and it was time for our picnic. Nathaniel served the most delectable Belizean chicken I had had so far. Fresh salsas and hand-made tortillas accompanied this treat. As we ate, a terrifying sound began to emanate from the forest in perceivable waves. It was quiet at first, and then increased in volume. It sounded like the combination of a low guttural growl and a hiss, and it made my hair stand on end. For a moment, I thought a nearby predator was stalking us. I asked Nathaniel what the sound was and he explained that it was the call of howler monkeys quite a long way off. Their vocalizations are so loud that you can hear them up to three miles away!

The terrifying call of the howler monkey

After lunch we visited the small visitors' center containing a tiny museum. There we paid an entrance fee before entering the archeological site. The ancient city was quiet large and it took us a couple of hours to visit just the main points of interest. Archeologists first described the site in 1917, but did not excavated until the mid-1970s.

The first stop on our walk was Jaguar Temple, known for the blocky jaguar sculptures at its exposed base. Experts believe it to be the tallest structure in the city, but a large part is still buried under soil and jungle. At sites like these, a modern concrete cap covers the original stairs on many of the pyramids. As such, the structure itself remains undamaged while the concrete suffers wear and tear. This particular pyramid was not yet protected and the original steps looked pretty precarious. I am hesitant to climb pyramids anyway in the interest of preservation. Charlie and Richard chose to climb up while the rest of us remained below. Green moss veiled the pyramid, making its separation from the landscape appear tenuous.

Sculptures at the base of Jaguar Temple

Moss covered Jaguar Temple

Area yet to be excavated, still covered in soil and plant life

View from atop Jaguar Temple

Frontal view

Nearby several large black howler monkeys chilled in a tall fig tree. Nathaniel called out to them by doing a convincing impression of their vocalization. One male immediately responded with his own low-pitched hoot. Nathaniel called again, but the male had moved on to another tree. He was neither impressed nor intimidated by the imposter.

Howler monkey sighting!


Next we saw what experts suspected to be the royal lodgings, complete with stone beds. Tree roots clung to these structures. The jungle was trying its best to encroach on the site again. It would forever challenge humankind's feeble grasp on the landscape.

Small rooms in the royal dwelling

Nature attempting to reclaim these structures... again

The next structure along the route was the "Stela Temple." Its steps bore the famous "Stela 9," a white stone slab erected in 625 AD and inscribed in the Yucatec language. This temple had undergone no restoration and was not climbable.

Stela 9

Nathaniel next to a palm with sizable fronds. He estimated its age at about 100 years.

Ball court at the foot of the High Temple

Palm nuts

We had arrived at the High Temple, which looked like a dangerous and arduous climb. Its exposed height was 108 feet and a rope extended down its front steps to aid visitors in climbing it. Gail and I opted out of the climb and sat on a bench in the shade. Charlie, Richard and the competitive couple (of course) conquered the slope. The mosquitos were relentless that day and feasted on Gail and me while we waited for the climbers to return. No amount of bug spray seemed to dissuade them.

Visitors use a rope to climb the High Temple

Looking down from atop the High Temple

Expansive jungle from the High Temple

Remnants of past excavations

The last stop before we left was Mask Temple, which Nathaniel also referred to as Olmec Temple. Two light grey faces –a different color than the rest of the temple– shone on either side of the central steps. The color difference was due to the modern concrete caps, installed prevent further erosion. One could climb this temple by the original front steps or by the modern staircase around the side. I opted for the latter.

Mask Temple

The Mask Temple's namesake

Nathaniel allowed us a few minutes to check out the gift shops before we departed. The athletic couple raced ahead of everyone else, as usual. Charlie and I, and Richard and Gail took our time to get there. They were retirees and seemed like a sweet couple who enjoyed one another's company. I hoped we would be like them someday. We bought a few souvenirs and then headed back to the boat. Once again, we had to wait an excessive amount of time for Douche Bro and Daisy Duke to do whatever it was they were doing. Nathaniel grew impatient and yelled at them to hurry up. They returned to the boat without even having purchased anything.

Awwwww

The trip back was much faster and we didn't stop once. It wasn't without excitement though, since we did catch a glimpse of a manatee as it submerged. When we got back to the boat tour place, the sweet-eyed mama dog reappeared to greet us. There was also a large flock of different waterfowl all wandering around together. Our driver returned us to Maruba, once again well shaken by the brutal road.

Once we were back at the resort, Charlie went to the gift shop. He had resolved to buy one of the giant wooden dicks as a gift to the kitchen staff at work. He asked Janelle, one of the nice young women working in the lounge, to assist him with the transaction. She obliged, giggling with embarrassment the whole time. Then we went to the hookah lounge so Charlie could smoke a cigar. We also used it to connect to the wifi, which didn't reach our room. Charlie ordered a coke from the server. Due to a misunderstanding, we were also brought a free coconut with a straw sticking out of it. Unfortunately, the coconut was underripe, so the juice was not pleasant to drink. We leaned back on the low sofa, almost braining ourselves on the sharp rocks protruding from the wall behind it. We repeatedly found ourselves being the victims of "form over function," as Charlie liked to put it.

Charlie has a cigar in the hookah lounge

Drinking out of a coconut

After Charlie finished his cigar, we headed into the restaurant with the coconut. Charlie had the kitchen staff break it open so that he could carve out and eat the flesh as an appetizer. The food at the restaurant was pretty hit or miss that evening. At one point during the meal I excused myself to use the lounge restroom. There wasn't much toilet paper left on the roll, which hung from a wooden peg on the wall. When I tugged it, the roll slid off the wooden peg and fell on the floor. I picked it up and went to replace it, only to find that the wooden peg was, in fact, carved into the shape of a dick. I felt like I was sitting next to a glory hole.

Charlie carves out his coconut under the restaurant's black light

Mood lighting, for when you want glowing teeth and sickly looking food

The bawdiest toilet paper holder you'll ever see

I returned to the table and told Charlie about what I had just discovered. He had to go investigate for himself, of course. When he left the restroom, the jock couple from earlier were standing at the door of the gift shop having a giggle. Charlie went up to them and told them about the toilet paper holder. The woman said she had seen it earlier and they all had a loud laugh about it. The resort's male owner observed them, stone-faced, from a nearby table.

We returned to our room. It had been sunny most of the day so the walking surfaces were, for once, not so treacherous. The dampness in our room had subsided to some degree, a welcome change in a climate where nothing ever seemed to dry. Even the toilet paper in the bathroom was usually moist. Charlie treated himself to a second cigar while I remained indoors to avoid mosquitos. Then we turned in.