Monday, December 2, 2013

... and I didn't even die!

After several recommendations from friends and family who had been there, this newly hitched couple settled on Belize for their honeymoon. We decided to treat ourselves to first class and were able to do so at a reasonable price due to cashing in on some airline miles and the fact that flights south of the border are just cheaper. We rather enjoyed getting to cut the lines almost every step of the way, from checking our luggage, to going through security, to boarding the plane.

Taking advantage of the quiet and the comfy seating in the Emirates (not our airline) boarding area of Seatac Airport.

Having the opportunity to fly the first leg from Seattle to Atlanta on a double-decker plane excited us. I booked our seats on the upper deck so that we could get the full experience. As soon as we stepped onto the plane we encountered the stairway up to the second level. Charlie felt like a kid in a candy store.

Our seats were private pods across the aisle from one another.

Control panel for seat position options

This was a red-eye flight, so we took advantage of the fact that the seats reclined fully.

That's the ticket!

Although having the ability to recline fully was nice, the seats did not in fact make very good beds. The walls of the pods made it so that you didn't really have a lot of wiggle room to get comfortable, and the lack of padding in the seats themselves simulated sleeping on a wooden board. My only other complaint was that my travel buddy was so far away that we couldn't hold hands or really even talk to one another. Next time I will book our pods on the same side of the aisle so that I can at least tousle his hair during the flight.

Cha mostly read and watched Die Hard. I just had to suck it up and be brave all by myself during turbulence.

The second leg of our trip, from Atlanta to Belize City, only had business class. We were very hungry but the food was barely edible. Despite the early hour, everyone else in business class drank their breakfast in the form of free mimosas. We were able to sleep some despite the entire plane being full of excited, loud vacationers. At least 50% of them were elderly.

When the plane landed, we exited via stairs onto a steamy tarmac. The air was much warmer and more humid than what we're used to in Seattle, but not unbearably so. As a matter of international standard, the passport control process was a humorless one. The gruff woman in charge of selecting people for inspection challenged our joint entry form. She didn't like the fact that we claimed to be a family but had different last names. "I don't know you're married," she protested. I rifled through my suitcase pockets trying to find our marriage certificate, but didn't do so in a timely enough manner. She lost her patience and, as a result, just waved us through.

Once inside the airport, we found the Tropic Air desk where we needed to check in for the final leg of our trip to Ambergris Caye. We had arrived earlier than expected so the booking agent asked us whether we'd like an earlier flight. "Yes, but we have no way to contact our hotel," we told the her. "Our agents will call them for you," she responded. Then an astoundingly friendly baggage handler took our luggage and gave us a travel brochure. Needless to say, we were impressed by their willingness to help us out.

After a short wait in the tiny, trinket-filled airport, a petite, young, unflappable woman led us and a few flight-mates back out onto the tarmac. We walked in a single file line up to the smallest plane I have ever seen. A man standing next to it instructed us to board through the small side door and move as far to the front as possible. This meant that the first guy on the plane sat in the co-pilot's chair at the controls. The man ushering us in poked his head into the plane and jokingly asked him, "Are you going to fly the plane too?" The newly deputized co-pilot kept turning around in his seat to smile with boyish delight at the young woman seated next to me. I had seen a similar look on Charlie's face many times during new and exciting experiences like this one and I knew he would have traded places with the lucky "co-pilot" in a heartbeat. However, I was glad he was seated next to his terrified wife where he could hold her hand and help soothe the burning anxiety welling up in her chest.

"God help us!"

"My body is ready."

Pilot and "co-pilot"

The pilot arrived and, thankfully, we embarked on one of the most flawlessly smooth flights I have ever been on, from take-off to landing. We flew quite low, mostly over shallow crystalline jade waters in which Charlie spotted a couple medium-sized sharks.

Maximum altitude

A transparent sea

Our plane landed at the even tinier airport on Ambergris Caye, and once again we were led off the tarmac in single file to an open-air baggage claim. Within ten minutes we had our suitcases and the curbside attendant had called our personal driver from the resort. Another man nearby was not so lucky and began to audibly lose his shit with the attentive airport staff because he couldn't find his luggage. I recognized him as the culturally daft man whom I had overheard in the Atlanta airport asking ignorant questions of an extremely tolerant Belizean woman. The family members receiving him at the airport, obviously embarrassed by his behavior, did their best to calm and reassure him.

The streets of San Pedro from baggage claim. Golf carts, bicycles, and feet are the main modes of transportation.

The only thing better than a regular golf cart is a cholo golf cart!

Our car arrived after a few short minutes. It was a small van driven by a rather imposing man named Jesus. Despite his intimidating, bodyguard-esque air, Jesus was friendly and helpful. As he drove us through town, he gave directions, indicated points of interest, and provided tidbits of advice for getting around. He drove us to a waterfront dock and hauled our suitcases down to the end of it where we would meet the boat that would take us to our resort.

As we waited, Charlie excitedly pointed out a large grey and white speckled ray approaching the dock. It hovered silently just under the surface of the water, slowly winding back and forth beneath the dock and between the watercraft parked there. I exclaimed, "Oh my god!" because it was the first wild ray I had seen. Jesus had no comment.

Our boat arrived after about ten minutes, driven by a young man named Adam and occupied by a pleased-looking couple. As they exited the boat, the woman told us we were going to love it here, hugged Adam, and then told us to do an excursion with him. I'm not a good swimmer, so of course I am also afraid of boats, and especially by small, speedy boats like the one we were about to ride in. Luckily, Adam navigated the boat gently, if fast, across the aquamarine seawater to our destination. The air smelled great, the sun shone, and the warm wind knotted my hair as we sped across the water. I smiled all the way.
Tiny marina

 Très bleu

Feeling good

After heading north on the water for about fifteen minutes, we arrived at our destination: Capricorn Resort. Because of the deplorable condition of the main road on Ambergris Caye, most people get to their destinations either by boat, as evidenced by the numerous docks along the way bearing signs of the resorts they belonged to, or by biking or walking down the beach. When we pulled up to the Capricorn dock, the staff met us there, helped us out of the boat, and loaded our luggage into a wheelbarrow. One guy instructed us to head to the bar for our (free) welcome drink. The bartender, José, met us at the edge of the bar patio with two icy glasses of rum punch in hand. We apologetically explained that we did not drink alcohol, so he kindly invited us to sit at the bar and enjoy a plate of fresh fruit while he made us a couple of refreshing, fruity, non-alcoholic drinks. Our private cabana was not quite ready when we got there, so we waited about half an hour at the bar and then went in for a long nap.

We woke at dusk, took a powerful shower, and then went to dinner at Capricorn's restaurant. The food was decent enough, but rather expensive. After dinner, Charlie bought an over-humidified cigar from the bar and we sat in lounge chairs under the palapa in front of our cabana.

Neighborhood pelican

Capricorn's dock at dusk

View of the eastern beachfront from the dock

I attempted to read A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush while Charlie smoked and stared out into black horizon. A light rain began, so we decided to turn in early.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Sometimes I forget that travel into my own backyard can be just as visually interesting and culturally diverse as hopping a flight to another continent. My friend Vera, a fellow resident of the greater Seattle area, suggested that we take a day trip out to Leavenworth, WA, a tiny Bavarian-style village nestled among some mountainous terrain along the Wenatchee River. It lies pretty much due east of Seattle and only takes about two hours by car to get there.

Fall had just begun, along with its inevitable rains, but we lucked out by choosing to go on the last clear, crisp day before everything turned to gray.

View from the car

River reflections

The geographic features surrounding the town, coupled with the Central European facades on the buildings reminded me of the places I had visited in the Swiss and French Alps.

Picturesque Front St.

Leavenworth is so tiny that you can walk from one side to the other in a matter of minutes. And being so small, the activities available on an average day are pretty limited. Basically, you can stay at an adorable inn, eat German food, and buy trinkets. It certainly did have a wide variety of shops, including antiques, art, jewelry, candy, and even a music box store.

Small chapel-like structure that appears to be connected to the Obertal Inn on Commercial St.

More views

Vera and I were hungry so we popped into Cafe Christa, known for its authentic-ish German food and beer. The internet seems to disagree on whether this cafe is still open, whether it is under new ownership, or whether it is a different entity entirely now.

Cafe Christa

Vera with her schnitzel and me with my sausage, spätzle, and sauerkraut. 

Marie is murder

After lunch we decided to visit one of the town's main attractions: The Nutcracker Museum. It held an impressive collection of any kind of nutcracker you could imagine, from the traditional to the outlandish, and the prudish to the bawdy.

Spock and Kirk

Burmese animal-shaped nutrackers

Carved wood from England and France

Ah yes, the Mormons

Expressive carved faces

Metal alligators

We did a little jewelry shopping and then hopped in the car to head back to Seattle. The rain and the traffic met us halfway.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Ride Home from Hell

On my last day in Buenos Aires, I rose early to shower, pack my things, and mentally prepare for the long journey ahead. I love traveling, but it is stressful. Lisa called to arrange for a private car, or remís, to come take me to the airport in the afternoon. 

I stepped out for lunch and made the mistake of going to Kentucky Pizza one last time. The man at the window who took my order was a fat, sweaty, boorish jerk who barely paid attention to anything I said while he leaned half of his body out of the takeout window to leer at women passing on the street. The two empanadas I received were not the ones I ordered and, naturally, a flavor I didn't even like, but I didn't realize that until I got home.

I spent the afternoon trying to relax and reading science articles on the internet. A mini tractor beam had been invented! Of course I couldn't help but fantasize about life becoming like Star Trek.

The car arrived to take me to the airport. It was a nice, new red car and was cleaner than the average taxi. The sun was intense that day and, despite the air conditioner being on full blast, sweat poured from my skin the entire ride. My chauffeur drove in a rather swervy manner, like everyone in Buenos Aires seemed to do. He explained that we were taking a circuitous route due to traffic, but I didn't really think that mattered since we had agreed upon a flat rate on the phone and had set out quite early.

There was heavy traffic on the circuitous route too, and what should have been a 40-minute ride took an hour and a half. It was all fine and dandy until the driver started talking and then refused to shut up until we arrived. He slurred his words as if he were drunk and drove as slowly as possible, often trying to make eye contact and flashing me his sparse-toothed grin in the rearview mirror rather than watching the road. He would begin a sentence with a complaint about Argentina and then finish it with a statement about how beautiful and matchless it was. He uttered other brilliant things too, such as when he called me bien gringa (so white) in response to me telling him I was half Mexican, and then followed up by telling me how machista Mexicans are. When I mentioned to him that I was to be married that spring, he encouraged infidelity before it was too late, not-so-subtly hinting that he was volunteering for the job.

When we finally got to the airport, he tried to swindle me out of 50 more pesos than what we had negotiated on the phone. I refused to give him more than ten extra pesos, as a tip, even though he didn't deserve even one. Once inside the airport I had to go through three different checkpoints to get to my gate. At the second one, an incredulous little girl exclaimed to her mother (who had clearly already had enough), "¡¿Dos controles?!" (Two checkpoints?!). People around her exchanged knowing glances and nodded in agreement with the little girl's expression of exasperation.

I reached my gate, relaxed, and ate the only food I could find: ice cream and Cheetos. I prayed that my seat mate for the ride home would be a quiet person. That wish was granted, but unfortunately I got the most uncomfortable seat in the history of airplane seats and didn't sleep a wink during the 10-hour flight to Atlanta.

When the plane landed, I had my worst re-entry experience ever. It was 5:00 a.m. and still dark in Atlanta when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the passport control line with throngs of other weary travelers. When I got to the checkpoint, the tall man behind the counter asked me the standard questions: Where are you coming from? What was the purpose of your trip? Etc. Then he asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I was a Spanish translator. He paused to look at my face for a moment and then smirked. "Really?" he said, "It doesn't look like it." He continued to smirk, amused with himself as if he had just told a funny joke, and waited for me to react. I furrowed my brow at him, bewildered by all the things wrong with his statement and shocked and his level of cultural insensitivity. I mean, his job is to interact with people from all over the world, for Christ's sake, and he's having a laugh about the fact that I don't fit his preconceived notions of what a Spanish-speaker should look like?

After an awkward moment, I shrugged, not really knowing what to say to that. He drew a cryptic symbol on my customs declaration, stamped my passport and dismissed me. As I walked away I muttered under my breath, "My last name is Garcia, you fucking idiot."

I approached the next line where two men were inspecting peoples' customs declarations and either allowing them through the checkpoint or waving them into a nearby room for further inspection. It was here that I learned the meaning of the cryptic symbol that the passport control officer had drawn on my form, as I was instructed to step into the adjacent room for a secondary check.

The first part of this check was to surrender my passport and my luggage to one officer and then sit in a nearby waiting area from which I would be called. There were only two officers inspecting peoples' luggage and probably six people in line in front of me, including a large family. The longer I waited, the more annoyed and anxious I became, knowing that I needed to get to my next flight soon. 

Finally, the young man who would be inspecting my bag called me up and, before opening it, asked me a few standard questions. Mainly he wanted to know where I was coming from and what I had been doing there, so I informed him that I had just got off a 10-hour flight from Argentina. He rifled through everything, opened every bag and box, and inspected and questioned me about everything I had with me. He pulled out a bottle of prescription medication, read the label and then asked what it was for. I told him it was anxiety medication because sometimes I get nervous when I fly. His response was, "Oh that's why you're all 'lalalala'," as he rolled his eyes back in his head and lolled his tongue out of the side of his mouth. Now I was pissed. "No, I haven't taken any," I replied curtly, and then repeated, "I just got off a 10-hour redeye flight from Argentina."

Just like the guy I dealt with before him, he smirked at having got a rise out of me. Then he picked up an article of clothing wrapped around a souvenir I had bought Charlie. "That's fragile," I told him, glaring. After he inspected it, he handed it to me and said sarcastically, "I'll let you repack this." Once he finally finished his smart-ass laden task, I angrily shoved my belongings back into the suitcase and hurried to my next gate.

Luckily, the next leg of my flight was easy and I was so exhausted that I slept all the way through it. It was a good thing too. I was ready to strangle the next person who crossed me.

A few final reflections on Buenos Aires:

One of the biggest challenges I faced in Buenos Aires was figuring out what to take pictures of. Not only that, I was somewhat afraid to take pictures because I had been repeatedly told stories of thieves snatching cameras or other valuables out of people's hands while they used them in public. That fear aside, I kept looking for the picturesque in this city and just wasn't finding it. A conversation with one of Lisa's friends leapt to mind, when she translated her first impression of the city with the phrase, "Surely it gets nice at some point, right?" I can only conclude that the charm of the city must lie in the activities and interactions occurring therein.

Buenos Aires is certainly sexy. The national pastime, tango, just oozes sensuality. The women are stacked and many have long, dark hair (however, I fear for the evolution of their appearance now that the Argentine government subsidizes plastic surgery). The men are tall, dark and handsome, and have a reputation for incredible charm and lifelong immaturity; it's a nation of man-children. It's ideal if you're young, single, and like to drink, dance and don't need to sleep. The word on the street is that this is a great city for getting laid. If you're a prematurely old teetotaler in a monogamous relationship who only likes to dance to music that doesn't require complex footwork, best choose another location. 

As for the individual districts, my opinions of them were formed by short visits, observations from bus/taxi windows, or by what others told me about them, so take these with a grain of salt. Palermo and Recoleta both seemed pretty posh, but clean and quite safe. Microcentro was great for shopping but incredibly noisy. I never visited Once, but saw it from the bus and could see that it was filthy and impoverished. It also had a reputation for being very dangerous. The Chacarita neighborhood where Lisa lived had the same reputation and was seen as somewhat undesirable, but it seemed like a pretty average neighborhood to me. Cañitas was cute and middle class. San Telmo was extremely cute, probably the closest thing to picturesque I found, and it also seemed like there was a lot to do there even though everything was closed when I visited.

No area I visited seemed particularly dangerous, but I didn't like walking around or waiting for buses late at night, especially in deserted areas (common sense). After hearing story after story of robberies, I was more concerned with someone snatching my new camera out of my hands while I took pictures than I was about my personal safety.

The buses in Buenos Aires run all night, which seems logical in a city where no one sleeps. Taxis are cheap if you are a person who earns your income in US dollars. For example, a taxi trip from one side of town to the other, which can take 40 minutes or so in traffic, costs about 50 Argentine pesos or $7 USD. The Subte, or subway, is a great option for transportation, but outside of the Microcentro the stops are few and far between. There was always a decent walk involved to get to any form of transportation.

The food is good if you're willing to pay for good food, and by American standards, even the best stuff is still pretty cheap. Parillas are the way to go if you want a protein-heavy, filling meal. The beef cannot be beat and there is plenty of high-quality fresh produce to be found.

And that concludes the saga of Argentina. Up next, a honeymoon in Belize!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

On Smoking, Eating, and Falling

Two days before my departure, Lisa and I made plans to smoke cigars in the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays in Palermo. Instead of just the two of us, I ended up with a fun entourage consisting of Carlos and Indi, with whom we had dined the night before, and Indi's co-worker, Nick.

The park was beautiful and the weather was nice. It was already making up for the failures of the previous day. The shoot went well, despite being my first solo endeavor at Smoking in the Park without the aid of Charlie's expertise in tobacco. I had even donned eye makeup for this rare, special occasion... and then wore sunglasses the whole time I was being filmed.

An odd little scooter outside the park

Indi and Nick chat in the shade.

A statue that looks like someone walked in on it while it was dressing

Spindly trees

And then we contributed the aroma of cigar smoke to the park's fragrant air.

After our time at the park, Lisa, Indi, and Nick withdrew to their respective work obligations while Carlos and I went to find something to eat. I was feeling a bit woozy from the morning's nicotine onslaught and Carlos was craving clean, healthy food, so I suggested a place called Meraviglia, which listed in the Lonely Planet guide as an organic vegetarian restaurant.

As its name suggests, it was marvelous! The place was bright and spotless, and our waitress was friendly.

While we waited for our orders, she brought us some delicious, fresh focaccia and freshly pressed orange/carrot/ginger juice.

I ordered an impressive and refreshing salad of mixed greens, candied almonds, assorted seeds, avocado, and a honey vinaigrette. Carlos had a spinach-based salad and topped it with an avocado he had bought from a neighborhood produce stand on our way to the restaurant. The waitress had a good laugh when she saw the avocado peel on his empty plate after the meal.

Carlos carves up his B.Y.O. avocado.

The price was excellent for an organic restaurant. The salad and juice together totaled $7.50 USD.

I returned to the apartment and finished out the day in a low-key manner. After Lisa was done working, we made another stir-fry from the previous night's leftovers. It wasn't as good as the one Carlos had made, but it was good enough.

The next morning, Lisa and I met some of her friends for breakfast and a French place called Oui Oui. I'm always incredibly skeptical about French food outside of France and this place was no different. I was especially skeptical about their eggs benedict, which everyone raved about. Eggs benedict is one of those things that is so good when done right, but can be awful when done wrong.

I ate my words, along with every bite of this delicious eggs benedict.

Meghan and Indi chat on the patio.

After breakfast, Lisa and I walked to the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center so that she could go for a run in the area and I could check out the mosque. I had just missed the tour when I got there, but I had neglected to bring a headscarf and wasn't wearing the most modest of shirts anyway. I took a nice long walk around the perimeter of the mosque grounds and gained an appreciation for its external architectural features. I was also impressed by its size, which rivaled that of the mosque in Paris.
 Geometrically designed doors and minarets

Tree-lined Avenida Intendente Bullrich

Mosque entrance

Lisa was still running when I had finished walking the perimeter, so I headed into the large shopping mall on adjacent Av. Cerviño to use the baño. I took a moment to reflect on the drastic differences between the activities taking place in the neighboring structures.

I walked back to the mosque entrance just in time to see Lisa approaching at the end of her run.
Ridiculously photogenic runner

On our walk back to the apartment, we stopped at a small kiosk for water and popsicles, a real necessity on that inordinately warm and humid day. We had a rest and then Lisa departed for a teaching gig. We agreed we'd meet up for our final dinner together at the grill down the street when she was done.

I decided to take a few pictures of the apartment so that my readers could appreciate its beauty. 

 Living room



 Baño with bidet. Why don't we have these in the US?!?!

 Upstairs sunroom

Open air terrace (with a busy Indi)

Night fell and I left the apartment to go secure our table at bustling Las Cabras, just a couple blocks away. I stood on the corner across from the restaurant, waiting for traffic to clear, half balancing on the uneven curb, when both ankles suddenly buckled under me. I fell into the street on my hands and knees exclaiming, "Ah, shit!" in English as I went down.

"Are you okay?" a man asked in Spanish as I rose. He seemed reluctant to get involved, but I didn't mind since I was thoroughly embarrassed and felt like disappearing into thin air anyway.
"Yes, but my ankle hurts," I replied.
"Well, yeah."

Luckily, my tumble didn't result in any real injury, except to my pride. I brushed the gravel off of my palms and my knees and limped across the street and onto the restaurant patio.  It didn't take long for me to get a table, and Lisa soon joined me. We dined on a spicy chile Caesar salad, beef loin, and delicious quesadillas. When we got home I iced my ankle, just for good measure.