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December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

I'm hoping today will be a day of successes as I scramble to finish outfitting ourselves with all the necessary bicycle touring gear for our trip to Panama. It's one of the last days of shopping I'll have before flying back to Central America. I made a half hearted attempt in Montreal, but my lack of local knowledge made it difficult to locate bike stores that are actually open year round.

I've decided to save the mileage and forsake what promised to be a great party in New York for a classic Sudbury Saturday night. While this may seem crazy for most people, it won't for anybody who's actually brought in the New Year at the Townehouse Tavern. Sudbury can be just as good a time as any city [I've visited] in the world. Tonight will be no different. Besides, I'm weary of driving.

December 27, 2005

The hottest pepper in the world. Seriously.

*I'm headed to Montreal later this morning, and rather than actually put effort into creating a post, I thought I'd provide a flashback to warmer times. This entry was written by Caroline more than a month ago while we were still traipsing through the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico. For me this is as easy as cut and paste...

Waterfall - Agua Azul (Chiapas)From the Zapatista stronghold of San Cristobal de las Casas we battled the bus route to the incredible waterfalls at Agua Azul, and were truly glad we bothered. Although the sun wasn't even out to enhance the vivid turquoise of the river, it was obvious the place hadn't been named "Blue Water" for nothing. Stretching through miles of lush Mexican jungle, the tropical pools are separated by brilliant white waterfalls, and by the time we grabbed our bathing suits we pretty much had the place to ourselves. After a dip in one of the pools and a quick lesson in barrel rolling (that's a swift water flood and river rescue technique, FYI), we decided it was dinner time and settled ourselves into a restaurant.

So it appears we're getting a bit blase about the ever-present hot sauces, having been travelling in Mexico for a good few weeks now, and none of us even hesitated before spooning an innocent-looking salsa onto our food. We only realised it was a lot more potent than it looked as our mouths seemed to catch fire. But far from repelling us from those powerful habanero chilis, when the restaurant-owner brought over a fresh one of the little devils to show us where the inferno in the salsa came from, we took it as a challenge.

Sally - another Canadian traveller we met in Mexico City, and self-proclaimed veteran of spicy foods - braved the first bite, and after boasting she could eat the entire thing "no problem", she soon gave up, eyes streaming and barely able to talk. Before long the evil green pepper was being passed around the table, with each person being dared to chew more of its tongue-destroying seeds. For some reason Ryan decided he was getting a kick out of the pain, and ate until saliva was pouring unchecked out of his mouth and he was forced to turn around in his chair and spit on the floor behind him. Classy.

And yes, for the second time in as many weeks, the boys' eyes were brimming with tears. Somebody tell me... when will the crying end?!

December 24, 2005

New Plan: Guatemala to Panama by bicycle

Central AmericaEven from the beginning, this trip has been marketed and presented as a sailing trip around the world. Though anybody who's read the small print or been following along thus far knows that in nearly 3 months of travel, we have yet to set sail. So far we've travelled most of the five thousand miles to Antigua, Guatemala via bus, with a few ferries, trains, mini-buses and pick-up trucks in the mix.

Now it's time for something completely different. Something that will allow us to interact more closely and intimately with my favorite part of Central America; it's people. Something that lets us stretch our legs and breathe some fresh air. Something that'll give us more freedom about where to go. Something that might actually make our money last longer, while enriching our experience.

When I return to Guatemala, we intend to travel the rest of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama) by bicycle. In addition to visiting friends and family, I'm running around trying to sort out the logistics of outfitting the 3 of us for this cycling leg of our trip.

If you'd asked me three months ago if I'd be cycling through the jungles of Central America, I'd have said no. That was then, this is now. And nobody, nobody knows what'll happen once we get to Panama; not me, not anybody. Pretty much all that remains intact are the core goals of this trip; To circumnavigate the globe without making any forward progress using air travel. The sailing will come soon enough, for now we continue our drive South... via bicycle.

December 22, 2005

Luggage Revittp://www.flickr.com/photos/theroadislife/49535727/" title="Photo Sharing">Clothes to Bring Around the World

Personal possessions either break or disappear on a pretty steady basis if your name happens to be Ryan Henderson or Brian O'Neill. (Willie's track record thus far has been impeccable). I know, stuff breaks and gets lost no matter who you are, but our attrition rate is sky-high, something we can't keep up with now that neither of us is actuallyGadgets and Stuff - To Bring Around the World earning money. Ahh but such is life; nothing stays the same. Never. I understand and accept it for the most part, and truth be told, no single item I'm travelling with is irreplaceable. Prohibitively expensive; Yes, but not irreplaceable.

As the money in my bank account continues to race toward that point on the horizon where everything converges on nothing, I can't help but dwell, at least a little, on the stuff I've left behind, broken or otherwise lost:

  • Camera -
    My poor camera. I may actually be cursed when it comes to cameras: In the year 2000 I had the opportunity to lead a 40-day canoe expedition down the Seal River in the far North of Manitoba and into Hudson's Bay. We saw caribou, whales, northern lights, fantastic sunsets, ferocious forest fires and wild rapids; I of course was carrying a beautiful SLR with dead batteries in one of the few places in the world where one can actually go 40 days without a store to buy replacements (The Canadian SubArctic).
    This most recent camera incident happened the day before I was to head into some very photogenic places in Mexico and Central America. It broke in a 'freak' accident involving a violent game of ultimate Frisbee on Pacific Beach in San Diego and some pesky sand particles that mysteriously snuck into my pockets. That was October 25th, I sent it off to be repaired. Canon is still 'rushing' to get it fixed. I'm fairly certain it'll be ready the day after I head back to Guatemala.
  • USB Stick -
    Not a huge deal, everything was backed up on the laptop, but I'd sprung for the 1GB card and it was less than a month old. The 256MB one I bought in Mexico as a replacement was a necessary evil if I was to continue using the laptop. I wish I had my 600 pesos back.
  • Sunglasses -
    Ha! It's impossible to keep from losing sunglasses for even regular people, I don't know why I even tried. I've been without them for 2 months now and am hoping that the aged, leathery-face look comes into fashion soon.
  • Jeans, Sweaters, Socks
    - As I look at the picture of my clothes, I find it hard to believe that I've been gone less than 3 months. My wardrobe has probably changed by at least 70%. I dumped or lost most of it before we left La Paz on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. I actually have nothing warmer than a t-shirt and a GoreTex jacke which is proving to be a problem here in Canada. It's okay though, Guatemalan thrift stores are among the cheapest (and best) in the world. For the price of a Subway fare in Toronto, I can outfit myself in some pretty stylish duds.
  • Foul Weather Gear
    - As soon as we realized we weren't getting on a boat in NYC I shipped that ball-and-chain straight home.
  • Towel
    - Officially it was the first thing I lost, I left it at a friends place in Brooklyn. It's probably for the best, I've never travelled with a towel that didn't reek like mould 95% of the time.
  • Laptop Computer
    - My prized possession, the $244 laptop seems to prefer the humidity of the jungle to the Great White North. I'm hoping that it's not working right now because it's hibernating; like a bear.... It would be sad if this was it as Jon just set me up with the first 4 seasons of the Trailer Park Boys and 2 seasons worth of Arrested Development. I'll give it a rest and hope the problem fixes itself. For now I'm typing from a different machine.

While my electronic world is collapsing, I'm reminded of some wise, and taunting, words by everybody's favorite existentialist Henry Thoreau:

It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.

-Henry David Thoreau

Brian hasn't fared any better, he is currently travelling without pants and inisits that a monkey ran off with them sometime during all the confusion on the night we slept in the jungle near Pelenque. This is frustrating for him mostly because all the flip-flops/sandals that come within a metre of his feet explode. He has only leather dress shoes and giant hiking boots to go with his shorts. He's on a constant quest to buy sandals or flip flops that fit him; Size 13 shoes among a Mayan population that must average 5'5" tall are hard to come by.

I'm reminded of our time in Livingstone on the Caribbean coast. He was optimistic at finding footwear to fit him there because the population of Livingston is Garifuna rather than Mayan (a.k.a taller and presumably with bigger feet). He bought the only size 13 shoes in town; A pair of "4X4" branded shower-shoes. They lasted nearly a whole week before blowing out on the mean streets of Antigua week.

December 20, 2005

My flight home ... and why it's not cheating....

It's four in the morning and I've been sitting in San Juan International Airport in Costa Rica for 15 hours now. I've never slept so well. I know; blasphemy!? I'm meant to be travelling the world 'without taking an airplane' but I can explain, I swear.

There's a loop hole; I always leave loop holes in the rules I make up, and if there isn't one, I create it. As long as I return to the exact spot I left, I can continue travelling as if I'd never left. The little red arrow can continue to bounce along its path around the globe uninterupted.

For the real purists out there, here's how it's working logistically. Yesterday I flew out of Guatemala City for San Jose, Costa Rica (where I'm sitting now, and have been for the last 15 hours). I'm heading to Miami in a couple hours, then on to Toronto. I'm leaving the arrow in Guatemala with Brian, Willie and Caroline and will meet up with the four of them on January 5th.

In 2002 I did my time. Christmas on a beach on the Gold Coast of Australia with a pile of other Canadians missing the snow and cheer of a classic Canadian Christmas. A single Christmas away from home is more than enough for me, and in my opinion, something nobody should get in the habit of missing. I've got all the snapshots I need of me wearing a Santa hat on the beach.

Brian and Willie should be settling in to a 2 week binge of Spanish lessons in San Pedro on the crater lake, Lago Atitlan. Brian has promised to keep us all updated with the occasional post.

Christmas is about getting together with family and friends. I be landing in Toronto early this evening and plan to head out for some food and drink, before driving North tomorrow. If you're reading this there's a good chance that you know me, and if you know me, there's a good chance you live in Toronto. I have no phone, but if you have nothing better to do on a Tuesday night, check the comments on this post, I'll have picked a suitable drinking hole before 8pm.

I can't wait to swap beans and rice for turkey and mashed potatoes.

December 18, 2005

Bueno Vista Social Club

Guatemalan KidsAt least part of the point of travelling around the world with no real plan is for unexpected and random things to happen. We've certainly been places and done things that I wouldn't have fathomed 90 days ago. In fact, I've been meaning to post some of these strange and wonderful experiences to this site but as of late, have been admitedly negligent.

While I'm riding Chicken Buses through to Guatemalan countryside, playing futbol with scores of barefoot children, exploring dark caves with nothing but candlelight and then standing as still as possible while tens of thousands of bats whisk by into the jungle dusk all you get is a picture of a bowl of seafood soup.

While we climb active volcanoes to peer into the centre of the earth, take cover behind trees and cars amist a strange blend of festive pandemonium, as fireworks spout in every direction from burning effigies of the Devil (It's a legitimate festival...honest.), or see the sun rise on a full-moon party on the shores of the stunning volcano rimmed Lago Atitlan, you've been forced to look at the same bowl of soup for four days now. What can I say? I've been meaning to relate these stories and more but, at this point, for me to go back and recount everything sounds far too tedious; for me, and surely for you the reader.

But last night, last night was about as random as it can get. We settled into to a crowded, but decidedly quaint Café No Sé in Antigua, Guatemala only to be treated to a performance by two of the surving members of the famed Bueno Vista Social Club. Now, I'm no music critic, but it's enough to say that these guys blew us out of the water. The music sounds laid back enough, but to watch these guys wail on their drums and blow into their flutes is something else. Incredible.

December 15, 2005

Tapado (Sea Food Soup)

Tapado Soup

From Rio Dulce we hired a boat to take us down the river and into the Carribbean town of Livingston where the pace of living slows to a crawl. I spent most of my time cultivating my love for food. Pictured is a Garifuna dish that combines fish, shrimp, crab, banana and coconut milk. mmmmm... tapado...

December 12, 2005

Rio Dulce - Sweet River

Caroline's Birthday - Rio DulceDespite around 200 decibels of Guatemalan folk music blasting out of the speakers on the bus ride from Flores, our ears (and indeed the rest of our bodies) made it to Rio Dulce intact, to be greeted by a crowd of locals selling tours, boat trips, and everything else we didn't need right at that precise moment. We checked in to Hotel Marilu and were immediately reminded of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now, of Martin Sheen sweating it out in a hotel room in Saigon. To give you more of an sense of it, Willie commented that this type of hotel room was the exact style that he'd imagined suffering malaria in. And in Ryan's words it was, "sparsely decorated with peach-coloured walls, cracked and graffitied just a little, a ceiling fan positioned directly above a single light bulb creating a strobe effect when both were turned on. And the humidity - heavy and thick. A great place for malaria; a perfect place to die from it." Get the picture?!

However ropey our surroundings, we awoke refreshed the next day, my 28th birthday, and stormed a nearby thrift store for bargains and birthday presents before crossing the river to check into the Hotel Backpackers, a friendly riverside guesthouse affiliated with an orphanage called Casa Guatemala. Deciding it would be a nice treat to potter about on the river for the afternoon, I enquired about the possibility of taking a boat out by ourselves instead of signing up to an organised tour, but evidently this was a comical and unconventional idea and the staff laughed in my face! However, before their giggles had died down a cheeky tour guide called Eric had contacted his people and found us a boat to rent - a lancha emblazoned with colourful paintings of wildlife and the words 'Jungle Tours'. We set sail and scouted the mouth of Lake Izabal via the Spanish fort, picked out our favourite sailboats of the many hundreds docked in the area, then ventured into the dense foliage of a tiny tributary of the main river. We paused before entering, lest we damage our borrowed boat in any way, but proceeded after Brian rightly pointed out that, "this boat's got jungle tours written all over it!" Our group escaped unscathed only for Captain O'Neill to pull the choke slightly too hard so that it actually came off in his hand. Oops. But needless to say he soon got us moving again.

My birthday treat that evening was a slap up meal at a local riverside restaurant courtesy of my lovely family (they contacted Ryan via this website and promised they'd reimburse him for the cost, bless them!), after which we plotted up on the deck outside our hotel and celebrated with copious amounts of rum and coke. We stuck it out until 3.30am, a sun umbrella sheltering us from the tropical showers that threatened to drown us in our seats. It was only when we decided to crash out that we realised a moody-looking security guard had been lurking just a few feet from us, a sawn-off shotgun carried nonchalantly in his hand. Nice to know someone's got your back.

- Caroline

December 09, 2005



There's nothing quite like a sprawling ancient city to make you squirm under the weight of history on your shoulders. There are plenty of cities out there that can do it to you, they don't have to be Mayan. I've been to Egypt and felt it all along the Nile River. I bet there are some doozies in Cambodia and I'm sure Machu Picchu in Peru has a similar effect as Monte Alban in Oaxaca did.

So far, this trip, Tikal (pictured above), in the northern jungles of Guatemala has been the most impressive. Even today, only a fraction of this giant city has been wrestled from the jungle; as you wander about you can see mounds of every size that are undoubtedly fantastic temples and palaces. To climb and touch these ancient buildings is to bear witness to the ghosts of lost generations and be forced to acknowledge that nothing will last. Given enough time, everything, all of it, will be swallowed. I can't help but imagine that the Spider Monkeys take this all for granted.

December 08, 2005

Crossing into Guatemala

Crossing into GuatemalaHere is where we get National Geographic. I'd heard that the border crossing we were taking was 'a minor crossing', but being a veteran of an infinite number of Windsor/Detroit crossings meant that I'd imagined something at least a little busier. It's quite possible that we were the only people to cross at Frontera Corozal that day. The guy in the picture drove us from the Mexican side 30 minutes up river to a small shanty town called Bethel, where we scrambled up a mud bank and onto a dusty dirt road.... Guatemala.

It took us some time to hunt down anybody even remotely official looking to stamp our passport and the money exchange consisted of nothing more than an enterprising woman digging into her purse to trade our remaining Pesos for her Quetzals. Within an hour of arriving in Guatemala, we managed to arrange for the 3 hour journey on one of those minibuses. You know, the kind that people pack way too full and inevitably make the evening news when they collide head on with a Mack truck or spontaneously burst into flames. We spent the ride in the back of this 10 seater vehicle and thus had a good view of people, and chickens, getting on and off. For sport, I kept a tally of how many passengers it would take. At its busiest I counted 18 full grown humans, a chicken or two, and maybe 2 infants in the van and at least 4 men on top of the van, with our luggage and a pile of produce. The women breastfed while the men carried machetes as if they were briefcases. Yes this was Guatemala, and we were getting our first taste of its magic and madness....

December 03, 2005

Welcome to the Jungle...

PalenqueAfter descending back out of the Madres for the umpteenth time, we were hunkered down less than 2 km from the Las Ruinas De Palenque (pictured). I'd never slept out in an open hammock in a real bonafide jungle before. The guide book insisted that the rainy season was over, but the cascading water falling out of the sky took no time finding it's way through the palm leaf shelter and into my face.

Guns and Roses was running through my head on some sort of infinite loop as we settled into a night of what felt, to me, like a scene from Platoon or Apocalypse Now without the killing.

Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day...

Anybody who's ever slept in a forest at night without fire can attest to the fact that can be a little unnerving in the best of conditions. Make that forest a jungle and throw in a giant spider sighting (Tarantula?) just before dusk, a few howler monkeys in the distance doing their best impression of a dying human, the real possibility of man-eating snakes, a completely open air shelter, impossible darkness, and poor Willie retching, under the strain of Montezuma's revenge, nearby during what must have been one of the more miserable nights of his life and the simple act of trying to sleep becomes an adventure for even the bravest among our group.

Now add Mefloquine to the mix. The malarial drug coursing through my veins, most famous for it's side affects: paranoia, nightmares and 'psychotic behaviour'... suddenly this night, the eve of Brian's 24th birthday, becomes the scariest since The Boogy Man moved out of my closet -- sometime around Grade 3.

Independently we all suffered through this night to varying degrees. Brian emerged in the morning caked in mud as a result of one particularly wet and muddy slope between our hammocks and his tent; he fell three times in the night. I fell once on the same slope, mid-pee, and was convinced that something poisonous bit my big toe in the process. In the morning I discovered there was no swelling and concluded, disappointingly, that it must have been a sharp stick. Willie suffered the worst of it as fire-ants instigated a sneak attack on his arms and shoulders while he concentrated on expelling the contents of his stomach for most of the night. Caroline, Sally and Tom, the rest of our rag-tag group, slept through the night and woke refreshed.

We've slowed of pace of travel to allow Willie some time to recover and will stay in Palenque until he's well enough to travel. At the moment it looks like he's on the mend and there's a good possibility that this post will be our last from Mexico. By the time you read this we may be negotiating the remote border crossing across the Rio Usumacinta and into Guatemala. The northern jungles of Guatemala may not be the most convenient for Interneting, they've had a real rough go with Hurricane Stan and weren't in the best of positions to deal with it in the first place; The country ranks 120th out of 173 on the UN human development index. I'll do my best to keep a regular posting schedule. If anybody out there is willing to splash for a satellite phone and Internet connection, I promise it would be well received. I'd post every day, I swear.


San Cristóbal de Las Casas

So it seems some of the best of Mexico may have been saved for last. Or at least maybe. As we slept or stared into the darkness, the coach wound up and through the Sierra Madres; carrying us from the warmth of Zipolite to San Cristóbal De Las Casas - the coldest `damn` city in Mexico.

When we arrived in the day's hot sun, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the place. Half asleep or exhausted, the six of us weaved our way through the colonial streets on route to the 'Backpackers Hostel'. Once there, though sleep was on all of our minds, it was no option. We had all of twenty-four hours in the city, and intended to see as much as possible.

On top of elaborate indigenous markets, churches, and mellow streets, it seems that much of San Cristóbal's recent fame is owed to the Zapatistas. In protest of the inauguration of NAFTA, the leftist guerrilla army emerged from the surrounding mountains and woods January 1st 1994, to seize the city. Their aim was to improve the desperate and oft ignored living conditions of the rural indigenous population in the state of Chiapas, and their popularity is evidenced by hoards of t-shirts, key chains, and posters throughout the city.

The brief stroll we took through the city was enough to impress us, but we knew we had to move. Even after meeting many fun people in the late-night and early-morning hours, we broke camp early the next day. For all of its merits, Mexico is but one country in a very big world.

This photo was taken in Ocosingo, a self declared autonomous Zapatista municipality.


December 01, 2005

Don Corleone - R.I.P.

Room with a View - ZipoliteZipolite is perhaps the most relaxed place on earth, and it remains my favourite place we've visited thus far. A tiny resort on the Oaxaca coast, it's so relaxed that on the western edge of the beach more than a few people are too laid back even to bother with bathing suits. But in every paradise there are sinister aspects lurking just below the surface, as Brian can attest. The sea has its various stingers, and every year the notoriously strong rip-tides inevitably drag panicked tourists to their deaths.

But not all the dangers of Zipolite lie in the water, as our good friend Don fatally discovered for himself on the night we left town. We'd met him on the first day. He spent most of his time lounging around the open air kitchen of Lo Cosmico, where we were staying. He never ventured down to the sea, preferring the shade of the cabanas away from the beach. Though he kept mostly to himself, his popularity with the guests of Lo Cosmico was unparalled. He had a real charisma and was a favourite of all of us.

As we were packing up to leave for San Cristobal there was a great commotion as word spread that Don Corleone had been stung by a scorpion. Now there are over 200 species of scorpion, and seven of them are known to have venom powerful enough to kill a human being. The trouble with Don is that he doesn't have the constitution of a healthy human, for he is a 9lb, fluffy house cat. While his owner, Diego, rushed into town to find help - a doctor; a vet; anybody who might be able to administer some sort of anti-venom - we all feared the worst.

To be fair, we're not absolutely certain that the cat died in the end, but as our taxi pulled away from the mean streets of Zipolite, we saw Diego sullenly making his way back to Lo Cosmico in the rain. He was alone and apparently empty-handed. We called out to wish him and 'The Don' the best...

If anybody reading this was at Lo Cosmico and has any concrete information about the fate of our friend, please share...