So Thankful for Everyone Who Reads My Posts!!!!

I have been so blessed with many many wonderful, interesting, exciting adventures and experiences in the last four and a half years. But, some of the biggest blessings have come from the words of excitement and encouragement I get from those that are truly interested in what I am doing and how I am doing it.

I was extremely lucky to have a writer from the NY Times contact me to include me in an article he wrote. It was fun to do and the response has been so great. I am really  so humbled by the encouraging words and by the donations to help me to keep doing this wonderful adventure. Several of you gave me donations for a cup of coffee/tea. I included a few photos I took doing just that. Others wrote how proud and happy they are for me! I hope you can see the smiles in my face!

I am updating and writing several posts. Hope you all keep reading and enjoying. Please feel free to give comblloogments and ask any questions. HUGS and SMILES to all!!

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Traveling Through Central America….

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I mentioned in one of my previous posts about entry and exit fees in Central America. They gouge you. Often I (along with other USA, Canadian, Australian and British) citizens were kept off the buses till we gave much more than all the other passengers. Being told that if we didn’t we could go back to the country we just paid to leave or they just calmly held our passports in their hands till we went to the window to pay the “required” amount. This was by far the most frustrating thing that happened in my trip through Central America.

There was actually two surfers I met between the countries of  Honduras and El Salvador who had each bought motorcycles in southern Mexico to ride and surf all the way to Panama. They had been gauged so much that along the way they had given away one of the motorcycles (they were being charged extra for each motorcycle along with the higher rates for being Australian) and were stuck between the two countries because they were $10 short for the passage into El Salvador. All of us who were not being allowed back on the bus till we anted up our higher price got our spare change and helped them get through too. What a mess.

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So there are some really different things that go on in buses in Central America that most US citizens are just not familiar with….

  • Stopping  when ever someone on the side of the road throws up their hand to get on.
  • A “spare” man standing at the open door of the bus YELLING to any and everyone where the buses destination was and to get on.
  • Dozens of people selling every kind of food, drink or wares up at the bus windows whenever it stopped. Homemade food from their home kitchens.
  • Livestock every where on the road.
  • People getting on the bus to sell food from a basket they were carrying on their head without the help of their hands.
  • People getting on the bus to play guitar and sing for tips (I could not resist any of the very very young boys that did this. Sucker tourist that I am).
  • How very loud the entire experience is.
  • How very crowded the buses are.
  • How VERY colorful the buses are.
Sites and Sounds of Chicken Bus Travel in Central America

Sites and Sounds of Chicken Bus Travel in Central America

Buses are not the only form of public transportation.

CA Travel and El Salvador

One of the cool things I found all over Central America are “rooms” to rent right in the terminals. So that you can get right on the bus from where you are staying. I did this a couple of times. Works out great when your bus leaves at some ridiculous time in the middle of the night or early morning.

Interesting se of a small space. Hostel El Salvador bus station.

Interesting use of a small space. Hostel El Salvador bus station.

I went through a lot of Central America by bus just stopping along the way to get out and relax, eat and explore a bit before traveling on. I had to get to Nicaragua by a certain date so I only had a short amount of time to get there. Traveling by car/bus in Central America is in no way like doing so in the States. So a hundred miles is a full days journey. I didn’t really know this ahead of time and so I was a bit crunched with sight-seeing time.

Of the countries I went through in Central America I very much want to go back and spend an extended period of time in El Salvador. I was really sad not to be able to explore it more than I did.

Here are several of my pictures from my ride south.CA Travel and El Salvador-003

CA Travel and El Salvador-002

My Stay Outside Guatemala City …..

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As I mentioned in the previous post I was told by my host to be in Guatemala way before sunset. We had made arrangements for him to pick me up at the local bus terminal  Zona 3 . Naively I had pictured a terminal station similar to the ones in the USA and Mexico. I was VERY wrong.

As I began to see there would be no way I would get to G.C. anytime close to sunset I asked one of the other passengers if I could use her phone. I tried calling Vladimir but he didn’t answer. So I just figured I would call when I got there. Well I was again WRONG. This is a crazy place. Basically a side walk goes around in an oval shape with Chicken Buses picking up and dropping people off in a system very similar to a conveyor belt. 

Chicken Buses Guatemala

Chicken Buses Guatemala

It was pitch black when I got there and the guard told me there was no way he would let me use the phone. He was not kind and laughed at me. I will admit I was scared. I know that currently G.C. has a reputation for a lot of crime. I did not know what I was going to do and must have looked a bit stricken, because a group of businessmen from the USA saw me and wanted to know how they could help. I asked if any spoke fluent Spanish, two did, and if they would call my host to tell him I had just arrived. One guy did that while the other got one of the nicer guards to tell him my situation in Spanish. 

Vladimir had already been to the station and thought I had stood him up. He had not received the call from me earlier from the other passengers phone. So he told the guy to have me stand under a light and not lose site of the guard and that he would be there in about 40 minutes. He then asked to speak to the guard. The guard, who speaks NO English, smiled at me and kept nodding the entire time he talked to Vlad.

Once everyone was off the phone the guys told me what Vlad had told them and that I was to stay right with the guard. He was going to take care of me. This guard would not let me go two steps away from him. He took my luggage in the hand opposite his gun and pulled it behind us as I walked with him on his route around the “terminal”.

My Guatemala Cop Friend

My Guatemala Cop Friend

BUT for me this wasn’t even the real scary part. Nope that was about to drive up. Vlad was good to his word and showed up a little over a half hour later. On a MOTORCYLCE. I am scared to death of them. I have two things on my Bucket List published here on this blog and I have already conquered one of them, well sorta, and that is guns. But I need to ease into these things (I did eventually take a ride on my friend’s motorcycle this past summer with a little less fanfare and really enjoyed it). So here I am in the  middle of one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with someone I have never physically met, in the middle of the nite getting on a motorcycle to cruise through town. I was terrified.

Here is a stock photo of the type of motorcycle.

Here is a stock photo of the type of motorcycle.

Off we went. My carry-on luggage between us, me on the back with a death grip on Vlad and him driving. Oh and no helmet. I would have been scared in that traffic in a car. This was crazy. He lives in a small village a half hour outside the city called, Santa Catarina Pinula. So cute. But back to the motorcycle ride. There is a foothill that goes straight up and then you go a city block and it goes straight down to get to the village. TERRIFYING!!!

Once we got there Vlad introduced me to his amazing family. I fell in love with his grandmother. 

PURE SWEETNESS

PURE SWEETNESS

But Vlad had found out that day that he had to go to Belize. And since I wasn’t going to get on that motorcycle again to save my life I was going to be staying with the family without Vlad. Problem is only he had any command of English, sorta. His 16 yr. old sister knows a few basic words, and we did have Google Translate for what that is worth, but we ended up having to get the 7 yr old nephew to come stay from up the street to be the translator. 

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I had such a wonderful time with this family. They treated me like royalty. I went with the kids and bought fruit and some goodies for the family and a large bouquet of colorful roses for the grandmother. She was so surprised. She told me she had never been given any flowers in her entire life. We also went to a sort of Swap Meet. It was so fun and I got some really cute clothes. I love them all.

Oh and I woke up the first morning by being thrown off the bed. It was my first out-of-the-country earthquake!!

After several days I went with the kids to the edge of town and caught a taxi to the bus terminal to go to El Salvador. But as a side note that crazy foothill was still really scary even in a taxi…..

Traveling Into Central America ….. First Stop Guatemala

So traveling thru Customs has been an experience. I’m quite behind in my blog entries so I can say in retrospect that my first real encounter of going from one country to another by land , especially if the country I was leaving was not my own, was a warning that is was not going to be smooth. Laughable many times, yes. Smooth, never.

I got to the border crossing at Tapachula, Mexico going into Ciudad Hidalgo, Guatemala on a very hot day. By the time I got to the actual area where Mexico ends, but before Guatemala begins (Yep, every country in Central America has about 1 km of nomad’s land, where you are not in any country. They do this to be able to charge you to leave one country and then to enter the next county. More on that in a minute….) I was sorely mad I had not brought water with me. 

Leaving Mexico I met a really good looking college guy. Very well built and tall. He offered to walk with me across the bridge and help me with my backpack. He was on his way to Nicaragua for a month. According to the internet and to locals this particular border crossing can be very busy unless one goes in the middle of the week first thing in the morning. Which is exactly what I did. 

As we walked we laughed about how dumb it would be to jump in the Rio Suchiate to get to the other side as we both had read about people doing to sneak into the countries.

Rio Suchiate

Then we noticed that it was weird how we didn’t have to really go thru any kinda customs at the Mexican border. Seemed strange to us both. Well, it is because we should have. Apparently there was a little booth that we were just suppose to “know” to go into. We figured out that, of course, this is a scam to make more money. Because you have to go back across said bridge to get your passport stamped that you have left Mexico or greatly risk that when you leave Guatemala they will hold you for not having officially ever left Mexico. The scam part being that all these old guys are just waiting outside to take you back in these cute little bicycle things.

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I have no idea how they ride these things. It is hotter than a frying pan and they ride with two or three passenger, plus their luggage, sitting in the front. They are very sketchy about how much they are going to charge you. Saying one price, but charging double to bring you back even though they had told you the price for coming and going. Still all in all very much worth the ride just kinda shady way to go about it. So we went back and got our passports stamped to leave Mexico (the guy at Customs in Guatemala let us leave our luggage in the room so that was good). There was no exit fee to leave Mexico. Nor was there one to enter Guatemala.

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After getting through both border crossings we decided to take another “pedal taxi” and split the cost to the bus terminal.

Now, I want to stress, I could not make this next part up even if I tried. As I mentioned this was a young, tall, well-built, 20 something year old. college student riding along with me. So he was quite embarrassed and I was astonished when a one-armed man of about 65 grabbed my luggage to convince us to ride in his pedal-taxi instead of the other 30 taxis waiting for passengers. He rode us to the bus terminal several miles away like the pro he must be. Dodging some of the hugest livestock I have ever seen. At one point a gigantic domestic pig ran along side us to what I can only assume was a bit of exercise.

Sadly, I have no pictures of this ride except in my mind. Which I get a chuckle out of every time I think about it.

Now I was going to go as far as Guatemala City. I had made arrangements to stay with a Couch Surfing host by the name of Vladimir and his family. He has a very basic understanding of English, but told me over and over again in our emails to make sure I got to Guatemala City way before dark. How hard could that be with it only being a 119 miles away. Well apparently in a bus that stops whenever and where ever someone throws up their hand it can take forever. I am told the trip is normally about 6 hours. My trip was just under 8. There were the aforementioned on and off riders, but also lots of  immigration check points. These were very scary for me at first due to the heavily armed ~~ with Uzis and assault rifles mind you~~ guards. Friendly Uzi Carrying Side of the Road GuardBut after awhile, even as scared of guns as I have been my entire adult life, I got very used to it. Then I didn’t even seem to notice.

Next blog entry…..another Bucket List item checked off and my time in Guatemala City with such a lovely family for hosts.

Tapachula Mexico … Cant Wait To Go Back

I will definitely go back to southern Mexico. It has been one of my favorite places so far. It is simple beauty.

After taking an overnight bus from Oaxaca to Tapachula, Chiapashttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapachula,_Chiapas

chiapasI got on a village bus to my host’s home in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. The village is called Cacahotán and is such a beautiful and lively hamlet at the bottom of a waterfall. 

This place is full of coffee bean farms. So pretty. Red berries hang full from each branch. Long oblong pans thick with picked beans in various stages of sun drying.

The sun is so much closer there than any other place I’ve been, except the Virgin Islands. Tapachula is the border city to Guatemala, the beginning of Central America.

My host, Ahmet is a great and talented guy. He is a 30 yr. old poet that also happens to co-own a newspaper. As with all my male hosts in this part of the America’s he lives with and helps his entire family. His parents and high school age brother live in the family home and at night lots of family comes over to play guitars and sing.

The family all welcomed me with huge smiles. Only Ameht and his teenage brother spoke any English at all and both wanted me only to speak it so they could practice.

After a cup of coffee (I arrived at their home at about 7am) Ameht and I went with his mom to visit his grandmother, sister and niece.  I love to go into the homes of the locals when I travel. You get a great sense of the people and area that way.  Ameht’s home consists of two stories with an attached garage and patio which his father has turned into a mechanics garage for their income.

An interesting fact I noticed while I was in Mexico and Central America is that for such a huge area for coffee importing they, for the most part, only serve instant coffee in their homes. Weird.

Once I had met the family I went with Ameht and his mom to see his grandmother, aunt, and niece. Again I got to see other local’s homes. I have to say I was quite a novelty for them. Lots of smiles while they looked me over so that was cool. After we left there, Ameht told me he wanted me to go with him to this “little get together” for a friend of his.

What he didn’t say is that it was an event for his friend who happened to be a famous poet there. Ameht was the emcee for the event and a painting was unveiled and dedicated. Ameht is a poet, I have posted one of his poems in the “pages” section of my blog. We went to the event at a place called, Campo experimental Rosario Izapa.

Agricultural Learning and Experimenting Center

Agricultural Learning and Experimenting Center

It was so much fun. I met so many interesting artist, poets, politicians. I had a wonderful time and would very much get involved in this Center if I lived nearby.

The full day I was in Ameht’s home and Southern Mexico he took me to visit his friend’s Hotel up the mountain. He had to do some work on his newspaper (which is a wonderful online periodical about cultural, political and news events in Chiapas http://periodicoensuma.blogspot.com/ and I recommend reading it and or “liking” the fb page).

I loved the van ride to the Hotel. It was majestic. We went there for Ameht to work on the bio of a famous chronicler (who own’s the hotel), Antonio Valera Saá.

Chronicler Antonio Valera Saá

Chronicler Antonio Valera Saá

Mr Valera Saá and his  family opened their arms up to me. Fed me and asked me many questions. I was part of the family for the day. It is a BEAUTIFUL hotel that overlooks the mountain into Guatemala. The name of the hotel is Hotel Colonial Campestre in Union Juarez. 

Hotel Colonial Campestre in Union Juarez

Hotel Colonial Campestre in Union Juarez

The next morning I said all my goodbyes and followed Ameht through the town to where I could find a ride to the Tapachula, Mexico border with Guatemala. I was leaving Mexico and starting my journey through Central America.

Thankfully Ameht went with me because I never would have found the cheap ride in what looked to me like a WWII tanker. It was fun and the guy gave me a ride for free as long as I taught him some words in English. I was on my way to Guatemala…

~~~~~Words I Am Learning to Live By…….From Medea ~~~~~~~

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The Tree of Life

OAXACA, MEXICO NOVEMBER 2011

I really loved my time in Southern Mexico. I look forward to going back.

The people are just so kind and happy. In fact this is true throughout Mexico and Central America. I had read and heard so much hype about all the dangers from drug cartels and kidnappers, but found none of that.

I felt as safe there as anywhere I traveled so far and safer than several places I’ve been to in the USA.

I got to Oaxaca late because of the bus issues. At the station stood my new Couch Surfing host and his two other surfers. They were all smiles and I was so touched they came to get me and make sure I got back to the house safely.

My host, Christopher, is 18 and lives with his wonderful parents.  They Welcomed me with open arms. His dad had been a taxi driver in San Francisco where Christopher had been born. Now he owns and drives what the call a TukTuk. 

He spoke some English. But the mom did not. So we smiled a lot and nodded a lot and I said Si, Si, Si a lot (actually that was my mantra through all of my travels south of San Diego).

We spent a bunch of time in the town square drinking Micheladas (Mexican slang for “my little cold one”). This is one of my new favorite drinks and have made it several times since coming back to the States… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelada

RECIPE:

1 ice cold Mexican beer: Corona or Negra Modela for example

2 tablespoons of course salt

1 tablespoon of chili powder

2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice

1-2 dashes of your favorite hot sauce

1 dash of soy sauce

1 dash of Worcestershire sauce

Ice

Black pepper

Lime wedge for garnish

1. Mix together the salt and chili powder on a small plate. Rim a beer glass with a little lime juice and then dip in the salt and chili mixture to cover the top of the glass.

2. Fill mug with ice (yes, ice in a beer is popular in Mexico and other parts of Latin America).

3. Add lime juice, hot sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of black pepper.

4. Slowly pour in beer. The salt on the rim will cause the beer to foam up, so be careful while adding beer.

5. Stir. Enjoy.

One night all of the Couchsurfers and our host, Christopher, went to see a wonderful outdoor concert. It seemed so magical as the stage was set between two ancient churches on the plaza. The lights came down from the towers and the moon shone so bright.

Even though I cannot speak Spanish like they do south of Mexico City I could follow the beautiful story of Oaxaca that she sang about http://www.susanaharp.com/2010/ . It was a real treat.

I did have a hard time with all the street sellers. On the buses, at the square, on the street, in the bano. There seems to be no where they will not walk up to you and it is hard to get them to leave. Even if you aren’t interested. They exploit children too and this made me very sad.

Oaxaca is a cosmopolitan place. European influenced for sure.

I love Oaxaca and will be back for sure…




First Bus Ride in Mexico….

I did a lot of exploring and traveling by bus while I was in Mexico and Central America. I was told that the commuter buses in Mexico are some of the best in the world and that proved to be true. And they go everywhere. There does not seem to be anywhere in the country where they don’t go.

These buses are so economical and they run on time and arrive on time. You can do all your buying online, go a day ahead to the station and purchase there or wait till your travel time and hope there is a seat left. There are several that are luxury (I did not travel on any of these), but all have extremely comfortable seats that recline -and seats can be reserved where you want to sit, air-conditioning, ample storage space and movies showing on several screens throughout the bus.

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My Trip From LAX to Mexico City October 2011…

I have never had an easier time flying as I did on my trip from LAX to Mexico City. I was certain that I would have trouble and I was wrong. My friends, Chris and Amanda, picked me up at my couch surfing place in Long Beach a couple of hours before my flight (had to be there that early because of it being an international flight and all).

Luggage in hand we were off. Fun conversations mostly about my time in Southern California and we were there. Hugs goodbye and a picture or two.


I had bought my ticket on Alaskan Airlines a couple of weeks before for a crazy great price of $74.00 one way. I got to choose my seat when I bought them while still online and then checked in online within the 24 hour time period. With no luggage to check I got to walk straight through to security.

Now I thought since it was LAX and I was going to Mexico which has some pretty high security warnings right now and it would at the very least be slow going through security. I was wrong. I was on the other side of security and headed to my gate literally within 3 minutes. I was shocked.

The only official thing I had to do was show my passport at the gate once I got there so they could make a mark on the ticket that it had been seen. No one was at the gate booth but me and the attendant so that took no time either.

That gave me about an hour and a half to eat something then to call family and say goodbye. I read a bit of my book and it was time to board.

One of the things I did at the airport is change some money. I know it costs more at the airport, but I wanted to at least be able to ask some questions and understand the answers. Those of you that know me know how much I struggle with money amounts anyway, so I know dealing with money in foreign currencies is going to be one of the biggest struggles of this journey. I exchanged $100.00 which was the least I could do with my Visa. She explained that I needed to take one of the zeros off the pesos and that would give me a rough idea on how much it was in American dollars. This actually is on the high-end as the current money exchange rate between  Mexican pesos and US dollar is: 13.20 to 1.

After a couple of mishaps some that actually were to my advantage I am beginning to have a grasp of it.
        
Once on board I was set. I was in the first row behind First Class so I didn’t have to walk down the aisle bumping into everyone. I sat on the aisle with an elderly Mexican woman who, of course, didn’t speak any English. She seemed very thankful for my help in getting her carry-on in the storage area and her comfortable in her seat.

The ride was great. Free drinks and breakfast. I have not been on a plane in almost twenty years under 12 hours that serves free food. For those of you who have read my post on my trip to Denver from Knoxville know that I was in wonder that the plane arrived 25 minutes early. Well so did this one. Cant believe that. Back in the day if it was less than 15 minutes late we thought it was early. Ha.

We all filled out our  paperwork to get into Mexico while inflight.  These included The Migratory Form for Foreign Tourist, people moving to Mexico, business travelers and dignitaries. After the forms are filled out and checked they are stamped by a customs officer. The officers than give it back to the person coming into the country to keep with their passport to be able to leave the country again. This form has a bar code on it and a blue stripe across the top saying “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”.


If this card is lost there is an issue! I was told that if it is lost or misplaced that I would have to go back to the airport in Mexico City (which is a problem since I am not going to be in Mexico City for most of this trip, but much further south) and beg them to let you fill out another form and pay the fine and get another card. It is up to them if they let you do this, but I’m not sure what you would do if they wont. I guess go to the Embassy?

Now for Customs. Lots of trepidation here. Not only is it a bit disconcerting to see all the military everywhere with oozies, but I have no real understanding of Spanish. So I was a bit concerned.

No need to be. Although none of the airport employees or immigration officers spoke any English there were several passengers who had been through this airport many times before and were more than willing to help me through the process.

Again, not having any checked luggage proved a huge advantage. I just walked through a small security metal detector thingy (I am pretty sure that is the technical name for it) and then into a short line for Customs. The first part of line the Customs Officer just checked the paperwork and gave me back the card mentioned above. The second part of the line I put my stuff on a conveyor belt and waited for a green light at the end.

If it is red you have to go to another place and they go through all your things. If it is green you push a large button to reset it and pick up your things and you are out of customs. My light was green and the woman behind the conveyor belt watching the camera gave me a big smile and say “Benvientuto Mexico”. Loved it.

At that point the sights and sounds kind of assaulted me.

My host in Mexico City had given me way too many different directions to get to his house so I was completely confused. I got to the street where the buses are and decided it would just be best to take a taxi. The taxi got me right there in about 20 minutes instead of the hour and half and four buses it would have taken. It only cost me $150  pesos which is about $11 and I was there.

My host’s house was in a neighborhood called, Colonia. There are many many neighborhoods, which they refer to as districts, that make up Mexico City. It was a quaint neighborhood with lots of people on the street all saying hello and asking how you are. Very nice.

It was easy to find the gate that led to the house, but it was locked. I waited and tried to ask in Spanish how to get to my host. I didn’t realize that once the gate was opened there was like a long passageway with several houses touching one another facing  in ward on either side. Not just one person’s home.

Finally a lady pointed out my host’s mom coming down the street. She was with her sister-in-law and they welcomed me with open arms. They spoke very broken English, but enough between all of us that we could have spotty conversations.

My host, Carlos, lives in an apartment above his parents. It truly on the roof. So once his mom had introduced me to his dad (who speaks NO English), she took me upstairs to put my luggage away.

Once she opened up the door there was a note from Carlos saying that he had gone out for the day and would not be back till midnight because he had been invited to a party. He said he would be back at midnight and we could then go to another party. I thought it was rude.

But, his parents and aunt invited me to go to lunch with them. I thought that was very kind and I had such a good time with them. I sat next to the dad and he yelled the menu to me in Spanish. Like people in the USA apparently he thinks if he yells it loud enough I would understand. Not the case, but it was humorous.

The menu was actually written on the table and I spent the meal learning some common dishes in Spanish. The food was really good and not spicy. Although there were tons of chilies and sauces to add to everything.
Back at the house we hung out for a bit and I went to Carlos’ apartment to rest.

He did get home about midnight and I was asleep.