April 19, 2008
The final day of my trip had arrived. After a long night without much sleep, I couldn't keep my eyes open on the hour-long bus ride to the airport in Cancun. Nothing of any significance happened on my two flights home. People complained about having to wait an hour to check in and their flight getting delayed by an hour, but I was used to that kind of stuff. In fact, the airport seemed extremely efficient to me. I was amazed at how far one could travel in one day. After years of getting stopped every ten minutes for random speed bumps, police checkpoints, pitchfork-brandishing protesters, flat tires, tuk tuks, and the occasional alpaca crossing, I was able to travel nearly 2000 miles in a mere four hours in the air, a distance I hadn't covered in at least the last four months.
I was freezing when I landed in Milwaukee, but I'll adjust eventually. There wasn't nearly as much culture shock coming back this time around. I think being in Playa del Carmen, where Wal Mart's and McDonald's abound, for the last three days helped make the transition smoother. I'm actually really glad to be back home.
So this is the end of my trip. Now comes the most difficult part. I have to get a new driver's license, get my car running again, catch up with people I haven't seen in years, try to get my old website back up, sort through 11,000 pictures for printing, put together a resume, search for a job, try to put back on a few pounds after dropping below the 150 mark for the first time since I was like twelve years old, and probably do a bunch of stuff I haven't even thought of yet. I'm sure I'll write some follow-up entries eventually, but for now this blog is closed.
April 15-18, 2008
The beach of Playa del Carmen
Today I entered Mexico for the first time in ten years. The bus went from the Belizean border up the Caribbean coast to Playa del Carmen, one of those all-inclusive American resort towns. Seventy-five percent of people on the beach were pasty and fat. They looked like in the last year they had spent fifteen minutes exercising, thirty minutes in the sun, and the rest of the time in an office eating junk food. Fifteen percent were so red it looked like someone poured a can of paint on them because they went from a terrible winter with no sun to sitting outside all day in the tropics without the inconvenience of sunscreen. The other ten percent were the color of bratwursts with a matching skin consistency, like they had spent three hours per day in the tanning booth for the last three months to prepare for their trip. That's not to say that I'm the prime example of a perfectly-bronzed beachgoer either.
The weird thing about Playa del Carmen was that despite all the decadence and tourists who think sitting on a beach for five days constitutes getting to know a new culture, the place started growing on me. The weather was perfect, the sand was fine and white, and there was nothing expected of me because nobody else was doing anything, either. My biggest accomplishment at the end of my trip was going to the clinic for another blood test to confirm that I was finally dengue-free. I also played a lot of cards with my fellow hostel-goers and realized that while I am going to miss this carefree lifestyle, it's okay that it's about to come to an end.
The photo album for this entry is here.
April 14, 2008
It took all day and a series of buses to reach northern Belize near the border with Mexico, an amazing accomplishment considering how tiny Belize is. Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish were being spoken far more than English, and I knew I had arrived at one of those border towns that acts as a cultural vortex, where nobody and everybody seems to fit in at the same time. Once again, not much was happening around town. My three days in Belize were interesting, but this is one of the slowest-moving places I have ever seen.
April 12-13, 2008
A guy walking along the beach.
Now that I know I will be heading home soon, several people have begun to warn me of the impending culture shock that will result from having been away for so long. But frankly, I'm a bit skeptical. For example:
Yesterday I crossed from Guatemala into Belize in the back seats of a couple different chicken buses. I ended up in a small town on the Caribbean coast called Dangriga. I walked around the dusty streets for a few minutes and came across an old black man with beady eyes, no more than a few molars left in his gob, nothing covering his feet, and a skinny frame that had been the result of years of spending all of his spare money on alcohol instead of food. He introduced himself as Abraham Lincoln and invited me to sit next to him on the curb. We talked about life in Dangriga for a few minutes and he attempted to introduce me to his best friend, a bottle that appeared to contain turpentine, but I declined. Instead, I offered to buy Abe a beer, but he logically informed me that I'd be throwing my money away because beer went down like water in a guy like him. Abe and I ended up sitting on the curb for a few hours, and soon I was well acquainted with the riffraff of Dangriga and all of the local gossip that came with the territory of someone with way too much time on his hands.
Today I hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck with three dreadlocked rastas to an even sleepier place called Hopkins. Along the way, one guy's Yankees cap got caught in the wind and blew off his head and onto the highway. I promptly joined the other two in belittling him for not protecting his headgear better and shouted "Not far, not far!" as he made the truck driver drop him off and slowly lurched his way back to the hat while we left him in our dust. Once in Hopkins, I walked up to the house of a leathery American woman whose disorganized garage of a bar put the idea in my head that maybe oceanside poverty wasn't so bad after all. We shared a fresh-squeezed grapefruit just and she blamed the $400-per-night resort next door for using all of the town's water and made no apologies for running the occasional hose across the property line to take a bit of it back. The only other thing happening in Hopkins was an African drum school, but their jam session wouldn't commence until tonight and I didn't feel like sitting around all day waiting for it. Once I had gotten my fix of Hopkins, I hitched back to Dangriga and spent the rest of the day listening to smooth reggae beats in the streets and trying to avoid the 110 degree sun.
Sure, some people seem to think that I'll experience culture shock when I go home, but I don't think so. After all, how different could my life here be from a typical day in the upper Midwest of the US?
The photo album for this entry is here.
April 11, 2008
I'm getting sick of paying for a bus ticket at 5 AM only to have the bus show up at 6. But instead of leaving right away, of course we go and talk to the driver's friend for ten minutes. Then when I yell at the driver, he acts like it's my fault because I'm not patient enough. After all, the day is long. Still, I think I had a right to be mad. The place we were going was the Tikal ruins, and lately the temperature has been climbing over 100 F (without the heat index) at 10 AM, not to return back to double digits again until well after dark. So not only am I sick of this intense heat, I'm even more sick of people wasting my few precious hours per day when it's not too bad. 5 till 8 AM is the only time of day where there's even a remote possibility of walking around without sweating.
Like Copan, the Tikal ruins were built by the Maya people thousands of years ago and were inhabited until about 800 AD, when they were promptly abandoned. Unlike Copan, Tikal had a lot more pyramids, it was more spread out, and it was right in the middle of the jungle. The fact that you could actually climb most of the pyramids made it a very fun and sweaty place to visit. There weren't even very many tourists visiting the ruins. I guess most of them stuck to the far-more-popular Chitzen Itza in Mexico. But I was certainly impressed by this incredible ancient city.
The photo album for this entry is here.
April 10, 2008
I went to the clinic this morning and did blood tests for both malaria and dengue. It turns out that I have dengue and not malaria. That was a good thing because dengue passes through your system and doesn't stay long-term whereas malaria might. Unfortunately, that means that I didn't need to take the malaria treatment, but there shouldn't be any long-term complications from that either. I went to a doctor who told me I should be fine in a few days, but there was no medicine to give me.
I gave going home another long thought, and decided that it was time. What else did I have left to prove? I wasn't enjoying myself as much anymore and was simply putting off the inevitable. I used to feel like I might as well be dead to this world, but now I realize that's not true. I'm the one who has abandoned everyone else, not the other way around. I bought a one-way ticket back to Milwaukee from Cancun on the 19th of April, exactly one and a half years since I was last in the US. That would give me just enough time to pass through Belize for a few days and head up the coast to Cancun. It will be good to be back.
April 8-9, 2008
Last night was rough again. This time, nausea was the side effect that got me. I had to fight off the urge to throw up constantly. It was like I was drunk and had to stumble around to get anywhere. I don't know if another side effect of the pills was sentimentality, but that was how I felt as I laid in bed. Being sick and alone is no fun, and at that moment, all I wanted was to be back at home. I decided then and there that I had to go back as soon as possible. I had no desire to keep traveling.
When I started to feel a little better, I managed to get out to a park called Semuc Champey. It was a colorful place in the forest filled with natural swimming pools, but I didn't really get to enjoy it due to a lack of energy. There were lots of caves in the area as well, but I didn't dare go inside in my condition. I managed to eat a salad at one point, but puked it up a few minutes later. My appetite was down to zero.
Once I felt well enough, I left town on the long bus trip to a city called Flores, where I will hopefully be able to see a doctor.
April 7, 2008
I went home because of my illness. Everyone in my family got together for a big party, and they were all sleeping in the house together. In the middle of the night, a huge storm came. I went outside to see a huge flash of lightning, fading away into dozens of bright spots all over the sky. The glow from the lightning was so intense, it was as if dawn were approaching.
Things started to get weird after that. My mom ran outside and told us we'd lost our phone and Internet connections. The whole house started shaking. The sky got real bright again and two kids dressed as cartoon characters rode past us on bicycles waving in unison like parade queens. Techno music started mysteriously playing upstairs, and when I asked my brother if it was his, he put out his hand as if to indicate that he wouldn't listen to that crap. My dad said it was probably just a ghost like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Suddenly, moaning voices filled the air as the storm rose up again. The whole house began violently shaking. Afraid the house would collapse, I yelled for everybody to get outside, but they didn't listen because they were under a spell. Once outside, I turned to see the two ghostly looking kids on bicycles pass me again, still waving away.
My whole knowledge of the universe was turned around. There was no way any of this could be happening, and suddenly I realized it must just be a dream. I pinched my arm as hard as I could, but nothing happened. I was stuck in this strange world. When the sun finally came up, I looked outside to see a huge government helicopter with Angel written on the back. My mom said it must have been them that did it. They disabled our communications so we couldn't call for help. Then people showed up from nowhere wearing Halloween costumes and started dancing and everything was back to normal. Another hellish night was over.
All of a sudden I woke up. I sat up but was disoriented. Finally I figured out that I was still in my tent in Guatemala and the whole thing about going home was all just a dream. Then I remembered the malaria pills. One of their side effects was bad dreams, but this was no ordinary dream. It felt exactly like reality. I remembered the cockroaches from last night and thought that might be a dream too. No such luck, the holes were still there. Still, what if I were still in a larger dream? Could the cockroaches be part of that dream? What about the last two and a half years of my life? Could they all have been a huge malaria-induced dream as well? I was expecting to wake up and find myself still in my office, looking at my watch to see how long until I turned sixty-five. I had no idea what was real and what wasn't anymore.
April 6, 2008
I had a horrible night last night. It was more rolling and shaking and waiting for death to approach. Tina brought me a banana and some yogurt, but I couldn't eat. I had the yogurt in the morning, but it took half an hour to get it all down. I couldn't even touch the banana so I put it in the tent to keep the bugs off it.
I went to the hospital, but the lady working there obviously had no idea what she was talking about. She quickly threw some pills my way when I described my symptoms, but when I asked if I could have malaria, she was very dismissive in telling me that there was no way. She didn't even have the capability to give me a simple blood test. I was eight hours from the nearest city and didn't feel like sitting on a bus that long to get a diagnosis.
Luckily all of the tourists I talked to at the hostel seemed to know all about malaria and dengue. They all figured I had one or the other, but since there was no treatment for dengue, I should take the malaria medication as it wouldn't hurt me in the long run if I didn't actually have malaria. My judgment wasn't the greatest, but I was in no position to argue, so I took the pills.
I slept most of the day, but the fever came back once more in the early afternoon. By late afternoon, I was finally feeling better. I still had the headache, but at least I wasn't shaking anymore. I was only awake a few hours all day, but I was already ready for bed by 9:00.
When I went to open my tent, I saw a small hole in the wall that looked new. Then I noticed a much bigger hole next to it. At first I thought someone had robbed me. I glanced inside and didn't immediately notice anything missing. Then I opened the door and figured out the problem: Dozens of cockroaches were crawling all over the banana I had left inside. The platform I had been camping on must have been infested with them, and they must have chewed through my tent to get inside. I didn't even know they could do that. My tent was ruined. I spent half an hour killing the cockroaches and slept with my flashlight on the rest of the night to keep them from coming back.
April 5, 2008
I could barely walk the half block to the pharmacy this morning. I told the pharmacist about my symptoms and she gave me some sort of fever medication. It somewhat helped but made me extremely drowsy. Somehow I managed to carry my backpack to the bus, but I felt like the walking dead along the way.
I got a bus to Coban, but there were many delays due to road construction. The Guatemalans' brilliant plan when repaving a road is to shut the entire thing down for three hours in the middle of the day and make any unlucky traffic that may try to cross that stretch of road wait. The concept of shutting down only one lane at a time has not yet made it as far as Guatemala.
When I finally got to Coban, I finally jumped on one more bus, my eighth bus in two days, to Lanquin. I was sleeping most of the way, but the fever came back strong in the afternoon and I began shaking and having severe aches again. I felt myself sinking, like my head was spinning and filling with clouds. Death would have been a welcome invitation at that point.
In Lanquin, I stayed at a beautiful compound of cabins on a river. There were no rooms available, so somehow I dragged out my tent and camped under a thatched roof. It was actually way better than being in a room because of the gentle breeze and extra space that doesn't exist in a dorm. I figured I was finally in a good place to ride out the fever.
When I was shaking and moaning in a chair later, I saw a German girl named Tina who I had originally met in Managua a few weeks ago. She didn't even recognize me I looked so bad. For the first time, I thought that maybe I had either malaria or dengue fever. I was on Utila ten days ago, which is known to have malaria, but I was taking my malaria medication at the time. Still, taking the medication in no way guarantees that you won't get the disease if you get a persistent strain. Some people told me there was a hospital I could go to tomorrow and get tested to find out for sure what it was.