The short and sweet of Oaxaca City

Dear friends,

We just got back to Zihuatanejo, and we’re pretty beat from 7 weeks of traveling, but I want to write a few things about our time visiting the city of Oaxaca.  This blog will be short and sweet. Very unusual for a writer who likes to drone on and on.

Oaxaca City was amazing.  OaxacaCityThe historical center was beautiful.  The center was a bit touristy for our liking, but it had the absolute best shopping I’ve seen in Mexico. It had gallery after gallery full of interesting Mexican art.  It had colorful Day of the Dead skulls and art everywhere. It had beautiful handmade embrodered Mexican shirts and dresses dangling in storefronts. And it had tons of street vendors selling beautiful handmade shirts, shawls and rugs. Yes, I did buy one shirt from a street vendor.

It had to be the textile capital of Mexico!

Oaxaca  Mexicanshirthad modern restaurants serving amazing food too. The best meal I’ve had in Mexico was in Oaxaca.  It had lovely mescal bars beckoning happy drinkers. It had some tremendous coffeeshops too. After a week of drinking two cups a day, I finally decided to take a breather.  I think Andy was delighted I was off the juice

The central plaza was beautiful, active and the balloon sellers were quite busy!

The city felt safe, and it was incredibly clean. The outskirts of the city featured many modern chain stores and chain restaurants. I didn’t realize Oaxaca city would be so modern. I had some pre-conceived notions which turned out to be untrue.

We did toy with the idea of renting a house in Oaxaca City for a few months, but in the end we feel like Morelia has a bit more spirit and is just a little bit livelier. But all in all it was a great two weeks…except for me leaving my brand new Google Pixel phone in the back of a cab.

If you are thinking about visiting Oaxaca, it’s a great choice.

I will try to push out another blog this week with musings about our past seven weeks.

Stacey

 

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FAQ from my readers!

 NOTE:  I was having some issues dealing with formatting for this blog post, it may look a little strange.  

Dear readers of Believe It Ohr Not:

Recently on Facebook, I asked you to send me questions that you might be interested in having me answer.  Thank you for heeding my plea and for sending me some very thoughtful ones.  I was touched so many of you took time out of your  busy schedules to compose them.

Here’s my answers to your queries.

Do you ever hide being American?
 No. We have never, ever hidden being from the USA.  In our travels people don’t automatically assume we are American. They assume we are either 1) Canadian
2) European 3) American, but not always in that order. It just depends.
Once we tell them we are from America, they usually ask us “what do you think of your president”. When we tell them, they smile, nod and that’s about it.  It’s never been an issue, and we don’t feel like we have to hide where we are from.   IMG_20170910_124823
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What do you wish Americans visiting Mexico would know?
I wish people in the United States really could see just how warm the Mexican people are. It’s hard to explain their warmth and vibrancy. They have a real zest for life. They live each day to its fullest. They are always smiling and joking, even though many people here have very hard lives and work very hard to support their families. They are always up for a celebration which I love!  Mexico does have its problems, politically and economically, but much of what you read and hear on the news is not reflective of our interactions with the population as a whole.     IMG_20170911_120921
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Are there ways we can help – things we can bring – when visiting to donate to local schools, orphanages, etc

Yes!  Local schools need basic school supplies, especially some of the more remote schools in Zihuatanejo. If you want to bring supplies when you come to visit us in Zihuatanejo, I can put you in touch with people I know that work closely with a local school in the hills of Zihuataenjo.

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How’s the snorkeling?

Not horrible, not great. It’s better on the Caribbean side near Cancun, but I’ve gone in Zihuatanejo before and it’s not horrible.

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How do you know where it’s OK to eat?

We don’t always know where it’s OK to eat. Generally, as a rule, I don’t eat street food, unless someone recommends it, or we see the vendors taking advanced hygienic precautions. This includes serving food on plates that have been wrapped into plastic wrap, and serving food with gloves on.  We also try to locate vendors that do not touch food and collect money at the same time. Sometimes we’ll bend these rules and I will eat plain cheese quesadillas.  Andy is not as strict as I am. He’s way more open to eating street food. The sanitation rules in Mexico are not as advanced as the U.S., but they are improving.   darngoodmole

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How do we find such cool restaurants?

We use Lonely Planet a lot!  We find that they have good restaurant recommendations. We also use TripAdvisor, (but it can be hit or miss).  While traveling, we always ask ex-pats to recommend their favorite places.

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How much Spanish do you speak now?

Not that much. But I continue to try.  I can successfully order food in a restaurant most of the time. I can tell people where I’m from. I can ask for things in a store.  Andy’s Spanish is way better than mine on all levels. But I continue to take lessons and hope for a miracle!  My comprehension is improving. Actually, my vocabulary is improving too, but I can’t string together sentences very well.   IMG_20170910_202658

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How much money do I need to do the same thing?

I can’t answer this question. This is too individual. But if you are seriously interested in doing something like we are, I will happily help you prepare a budget. And I can share our budget with you.  I can tell you that life in Mexico is way, way cheaper than life in the U.S, especially life in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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How long can you stay in Mexico?

Right now are are on tourist visas. This means we can stay in Mexico for 180 days. After 180 days (six months) we have to leave Mexico–for how long we are not sure. We’ve always left for at least a few weeks. Sometimes people do border runs to the U.S.A or Guatemala, or Belize, and return in very short amount of times.  Eventually we may decide to apply for permanent residency, but this process has to be started outside of Mexico and we’ve not had a chance to start it yet.

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What is the coldest it’s been?
In Patzcuaro, it’s probably been in the low 40’s at night. It can get very cold in some parts of Mexico. In Oaxaca at night we need jackets. Andy wears his new wool cap from Guatemala.  He won’t be able to wear it once we get to Zihuatenjo and it’s 90 degrees every day!  hatboy
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How would you define “home” now?

I think Mexico is starting to feel like home. I’m not sure I would actually call it my home, but the longer we are here, the more it feels like it.

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What has been your favorite city in Mexico u have traveled to and why?

 I cannot answer this. Mexico has tons of cities I love.  I always, always wax poetically about both Morelia and Zihuatenjo, but I also love Oaxaca where we are now.  I’ll blog about Oaxaca soon, but it has blown me away for many reasons. I guess Morelia still would have to be my favorite city, (with Oaxaca a close second) because it’s vibrant, old, beautiful and it has a certain buzz that I can’t adequately describe.  It’s a city that lives.

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How does it feel to have accomplished (and endured) more than you thought possible in terms of physical effort while traveling in Guatemala?

I’m surprised that I could do what I did. As I often recount, I’m not a good hiker, I don’t handle hills well, and I get winded easily, because I’m not in tip-top physical shape. Still it felt good to challenge myself while in Guatemala.     The water/cave hike was most memorable. Kanbucaves

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What happened to the Giant Flying Cockroach hiding in Andy’s clothes on the wall?

Thankfully, I never saw the cockroach again, so I don’t actually know.

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Is the tap water okay to drink during your travels?

It depends. It was fine to drink in Japan and South Korea. But it is not fine to drink anywhere in Mexico, (unless in a fancy resort with filtered water). It’s was not OK to drink tap water in Guatemala. I know this question is not about river water, but several months ago, I drank water from a river spring ONLY because an ex-pat told me it was a pure source, directly from  and because he drinks from it every day. I didn’t get sick, but eventually I developed a parasite. It could have been from the river, it could have been from something else.  In Mexico you just never know. No more river water for me!

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Have you discovered any different and interesting food in Guatemala?

Guatemala is not known for its food. I did really enjoy eating beans and rice, though. I liked the black beans a lot.  I also liked the fact that the food was not as spicy as Mexico, but it’s very similar. I was a big fan of a Guatemalan white fish. I also enjoyed snacking on fried fava beans. They were my favorite Guatemalan snacks.

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What do you do if you need minor or major medical attention?

 I go to the doctor!  I have a great oncologist in Morelia, Mexico who I see every three months.  I’ve had to seek medical attention in Israel, Belgium, and Japan and all of these experiences have turned out fine.  I do recommend carrying travel insurance whenever you travel.  

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Have you ever felt unsafe anywhere you’ve stayed are traveled?

I didn’t feel completely safe in Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast. But I didn’t feel threatened either. Safety, thankfully has not been an issue for us.  Livingstonwaterfall

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Have you encountered many “ugly Americans? Would you recommend retiring in Mexico? If so, which part(s)?

We haven’t encountered many ugly Americans. I would say that the opposite is true. For the most part, the Americans we have encountered love and respect Mexicans and Mexican culture. They go out of their way to show respect in their daily interactions. But, I also attribute this to the fact that with the exception of Zihuatanejo, we’ve not been in places with tons and tons of tourists. However, even when we’ve stayed at all-inclusive resorts with a lot of gringos, we’ve seen tourists trying to be respectful.

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Can you talk about finding and using travel agents?
We tend to book most of our travel ourselves. For instance, when we went to Korea and Japan this past spring, we did everything ourselves and it worked out fine. However, for this recent trip to Guatemala,  there were too many things we felt like we needed help with. Andy went into a travel agent and booked a one-day hiking trip and it worked out well, so we decided to return to the same travel agency and book many more excursions, and van travel. They did a GREAT job. They gave us their cell phone number so we could text them when issues came up, and the travel agent spoke fairly good English.

 In order to find good travel agents, I would use two sources 1) Word of mouth  2) online reviews from TripAdvisor.

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What new food have you tried that you’ve really enjoyed? Really not?

In Guatemala I really liked the black beans they served with many meals.  In Mexico, I have a soft spot in my heart for beers mixed with tomato juice. It’s super refreshing even thought it sounds disgusting. I’ve also developed an appreciation for mezcal since we’re now in Oaxaca.  Don’t get me started on the chocolate from Oaxaca, especially when combined with the local chili.  It’s fab.  grasshopper

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How do you channel your inner “superhero”? You are so courageous to be living the life you are! I’m too scared to take those kinds of risks.

I’m not sure I would consider myself a risk taker by nature, but I know many readers of my blog would disagree.  I think my “superhero” shines brightly because I simply do not know if and when I might get cancer again.  Right now, I’ve been in remission for two whole years! Amazing.  I don’t know how long I’m going to be around and I don’t know how healthy I’m going to be.  This allows me to do things I wouldn’t normally do like do a cave hike.

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What was something you expected that was true?

I expected that I would not miss working 40 hours a week. This has proven to be true.

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What was something you didn’t expect (not including your last hotel room) that surprised you… good and/or bad?

Gosh, some of these questions are hard!  I guess I’m surprised at how much we love Mexico and how much it fits in with our lifestyle.  Before we started this adventure, I had been to Mexico many, many times but primarily only to the Yucatan and Zihuatenjo. I didn’t realize what a beautiful and interesting country Mexico would turn out to be. I didn’t realize how much we would fall in love with the people.  And I really didn’t realize how much the Mexican way-of-life (cultural tempo?) would fit into our lifestyle.    beachRioDulce

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Tell us about the weavings in Guatemala.

Throughout Guatemala, many, many women (and often men) wear traditional clothing.  It’s beautiful, colorful and a feast for the eyes!  Most women wear clothing that does not match.  Every region has a different style of clothing and many indigenous people can tell where someone is from by the pattern of their clothes. Handmade clothing is for sale everywhere in Guatemala, but much of it is expensive.  I didn’t buy any shirts in Guatemala because they seemed very heavy and hot. I didn’t think I would be able to wear them while in Mexico so I passed.  IMG_20171015_123224

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 Is finding a restroom ever an issue?

Yes! Many Mexican restrooms are not nice places.  In Japan, I felt like I could eat off the floor easily in the restrooms. They were always spotless including public ones. Not true in Mexico. It’s not always easy to find a clean one. Usually, when taking a driving trip, highway gas station restrooms are decent, but often public ones are not good. I close my eyes and do my business as fast as I can!

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What do you miss the most about the Bay Area?

I miss our super big and super comfortable couch at our house in Oakland. I miss hanging out and exploring cool Oakland neighborhoods. I miss sushi and I miss dim sum. I miss shopping at Trader Joe’s.  I miss my friends and mother-in-law!! 

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Thanks again for submitting questions. I had a lot of fun answering them!

2 cockroaches– 2 ladders– and 2 much fun!

The love of my life is currently lying next to me in our hotel room in Livingston, Guatemala. He really doesn’t look so good.  About 4 AM, he woke up with stomach problems which got worse as the morning progressed, but I was fine. Then after breakfast, I wasn’t so fine anymore. And  although we both managed to go on two great outings today, once we got back to the hotel mid-afternoon, we both crashed, with Andy feeling much worse than me.

Ugh, now he’s in the bathroom making a lot of coughing and retching noises. That’s probably not a good sign. I fear I’m next. I may have to put this yarn spinning on hold to pay my respects to Mrs. Porceline–but hopefully not.

In general, I’m fairly cautious about what I eat and drink when I travel, but lately, I’ve let my guard down. It’s very hard to be diligent when you are on the road for an extended period of time. Case in point…I love me some green apples. I eat them all the time in Mexico. But, in Mexico, I always wash them in blue drops. While we’re on the road, we don’t have the luxury of soaking everything for 15 minutes. And yeah, when possible I try to eat bananas and safe things, but I crave green apples, so Andy bought me three lovely green specimens just the other day. Yesterday I snacked on one sans washing. Well, maybe that wasn’t so smart. Or, maybe it was the the ice that accompanied my dinner drink last night.  Or perhaps it was swimming in the bat infested water cave. Whatever the case, I’m pledging to be more cautious for the rest of our trip in Guatemala and Oaxoca.  Right now my head is pounding, and I’m starting to feel not-so-good. And from the sounds of retching coming from behind door number 1 either is Andy.

Trip recap

Right now, we’re staying at one of the finest hotels in the Rio Dulce area of Guatemala. We’re currently on the Caribbean Coast.  It’s quite nice, but it’s very much like a full-service resort that was built in the 1960’s and never updated. Everything is faded and crackly, but clean…except for the huge hairball in our shower that was leftover from the last guest. Our room is nice and large, it has decent (one setting) air-conditioning and it has a killer view of the Bay of Amatique.  It’s where the Rio Dulce empties into the ocean. Simply beautiful.

Today marks the 1/2 way point through our 52 day Guatemala/Mexico adventure. Here’s what we’ve done.

  • We left Morelia and spent 10 glorious days in Zihuatanejo.
  • We flew to Guatemala from Mexico City and spent two weeks in Antigua. While in Antigua, Andy hiked up some volcanoes and I went to Spanish school. We toured coffee plantations, went to an organic farm,  and drank a lot of amazing Guatemalan coffee. We also went to a really neat kite festival to celebrate Day of the Dead. And we went to the largest crafts market in Guatemala.
  • We went to Lake Atitlan and toured the lake district. We stayed in a really posh airbnb, starred at the lake and visited a lot of Mayan lake towns.
  • Then we went to Semuc Champey. It was a hellish journey.  It took us 8 hours by van, and then we had to transfer to a big pick-up truck and travel another hour. Luckily I got a seat in the truck, and I didn’t have to stand-up in the back with eight other people. Now we are in the Rio Dulce area.

Next, we’ll visit the ruins of Tikal, visit another colonial city called Xela (AKA, Quetzaltenango) and then we will spend 17 days exploring Oaxaca, Mexico. Then it’s back to Zihuatanejo for four months.

Not allowed in the United States!

During our recent stay in Semuc Champey, our tour guide took us on a tour of an underwater bat cave. This is something I really wanted to do because I love to swim and I thought a swimming hike would be fun. I asked the tour guide if the hike was difficult since I had read on-line that it was scary and very challenging. He said “no problem”.  But just to be sure, when we got to the hike location, I asked a bunch of people coming out of the cave if it was difficult, they all said “not really”.  They all told me it was AWESOME and I should go for it. Note to self…don’t ask young 20 somethings if things are difficult.  They were just plain wrong.

So the hike begins with ONE guide for 20 people. We all have lit candles and we approach the cave by hiking up  a pretty steep path. Maybe 150 steps?  Then we go down a steep set of steps and enter the water-filled cave. We’re traipsing through a very scary and dark bat cave, sometimes swimming, sometimes, holding onto a rope to guide us. Then all the sudden we’re climbing wall hugging ladders with rungs that barely have any place to place ones feet. We’re also inching along small ledges, and stepping on small and large stones in the freezing cold water that are either a) jagged or b) very slippery. And I’m having the time of my life! Really, I am. Me. The person who is scared of literally everything.

Kanbucaves

This photo is from the internet, not from our hike, but you get the idea.

Of course, me being me, eventually I sort of crumple to my knees having just completed the top rung of a very difficult ladder: unfortunately I was right on the edge of a perilous cliff when this happened.  Thankfully I wasn’t hurt, but had I been seriously hurt, I would have had to be driven 12 hours to the nearest hospital. The guide and Andy helped me get up…did I mention there was ONE guide for 20 people????  I’m not sure how I managed to get myself up, since I can barely get myself up when I’m on the mat at yoga, but I think my adrenal must have kicked in big-time. Onward I trudged with Andy holding onto me tightly. Sometimes another hiker gave me his hand in places where I had to hoist myself up.  In a few other tight spots, the guide came to my rescue. That’s when we wasn’t helping the 19 other people!!!

After the hike, Andy told me that this was the most adventurous things he had ever seen me do in our entire relationship.

A dark cave hike would never, ever be allowed in the U.S.  They had zero, I mean zero safety standards in place. We didn’t sign any release forms, we had no proper gear (but I was wearing water shoes thankfully). The entire thing was just so sketchy. I’m not even sure the guide had any special training although he did help me a lot.  Also, there really needed to be at least 2 other guides accompanying our group. In hindsight, it’s a good thing we took out travel insurance. Other people who have done this hike came out with busted knees, broken ankles and tons of other maladies.  I know this because I read about it on Tripadvisor, and we have a few friends who told us what happened to them after I posted about my hike adventure on Facebook.

Today we went on a much easier, short river hike to see seven river pools. I only saw two pools because the hike got to be too difficult for me.  It was very rocky. It ended at a waterfall and Andy took a dip.

Staceyropebridge.jpg

I wanted to do more of this lovely river hike but it was too rocky.

Livingstonwaterfall

Andy had a nice dip in this waterfall. I didn’t make it this far.

After the river hike, our boat took us to a private beach. It was really relaxing, but we didn’t go swimming because the water looked murky and gross. However, the beach itself was lovely. We listened to some music and just chilled.  Instead of swimming Andy took a nice nap. Guatemala is not known for its fine beaches, although nearby Honduras and Belize have some very fine beaches.

beachRioDulce

The beach looked nice, but it wasn’t a swimming beach.

AndyinhammockLivingston

Andy had a nice nap in the shade.

BeachchairsLivingston

Why 2 cockroaches, 2 ladders and 2 much fun?

2 cockroaches: I saw two giant cockroaches in our hostel in the jungle. Faithful readers of this blog know that I’m terrified of them. One bolted out of Andy’s boxer shorts which were hanging on a wall, and I saw another spooky one in our bathroom at the hostel.

2 ladders: I had to go up at least two ladders during our cave hike.

2 much fun:  Needs no further explanation. It’s what this adventure is!!!

 

 

 

 

Chicken Sh_t and bat poop

Dear diary,

I’m scared.  Tomorrow we’re leaving the relaxing and peaceful Lake Atitlan area and I’m scared of what comes next. This house has been so amazing. Why do we have to leave?  The last week has been relaxing, tranquil and simply wonderful.  Can’t we just stay here?

We’ve had a great time  enjoying this very fancy house, cooking in the amazing kitchen (my favorite dish was the homemade vegetable soup I made) and exploring towns around the lake area. But now we’re headed back to Antigua for two days and then the real adventure begins. Am I ready for what comes next?  I don’t think I am!

I’m mostly scared to visit Semuc Champey . First, I’ve heard it’s very hard to get to. On the final leg of the trip, people report standing in the back of a pick-up truck for 45 minutes going five miles an hour over something that barely constitutes a road!  I’m really too old to be hanging onto the back of a metal bar in a pick-up truck, but there are no other options.  The journey to get there is just dreadful.  Andy told our travel agent that I really needed a front seat, and she said she would see what she can do, but I’m not holding out much hope. Of course, Andy is excited to go. I’m already imagining how happy he’s going to be standing in the back of the pick-up bed.

Oh, and then there’s our lodging situation once we get there. We’re staying at a youth hostel/echo lodge in the middle of the jungle. Because the falls/pools are so isolated, there were not  a lot of options to choose from.  It really looks rustic. No wifi, and zero hot water.  Good thing the temperature will be fairly hot.

We’ve been assured we’ll have our own room and bathroom at the lodge, and it’s only for two nights, so I’ll suck it up no matter how rustic it is. I’ve had worse lodging for sure.  Despite all this anxiety, I really do want to go to this part of Guatemala.  Semuc is supposed to be the best part of the country.  The photos of this area are unbelievable.

Semuc2

This is a view from above. There are turquoise pools to swim in everywhere. 

Then there’s the underwater cave hike. The one with the bats. I did an underwater cave hike when I was a wee one of 16, spending my first summer in Israel. Everyone linked arms and got candles to hold. The water was up to our necks so we had to swim for part of the cave hike.  It was dark, scary and fun. This cave hike is supposed to be very similar to that one, but I’m not 16 years anymore. Will I be able to do it?   I’m not a big fan of bats either. We told our Antigua neighbor about this hike and she told us that she had heard about it, but she was hesitent to do it because she heard that inhaling bat poop is bad for one’s immune system.  I’m getting ready to hold my breathe for as long as I possibly can!!!

Note to self…I’ve got to be a little bit braver and a little less of a chicken shit!

semuc-champey

I can’t wait to dive (well gently walk in)

So much to look forward to before we return to Mexico on December 1.  We’re going to a massive kite festival to celebrate Day of the Dead outside of Antigua. The kites look amazing.  Then we’re going to Tikal to see the ruins.

Kitefestival

The kite festival celebrates Day of the Dead and it’s going to be awesome!

And then after Semuc, we’ve rented a private boat (not a yacht, just something very simple with an outboard motor).  We’re going to be staying at a hotel and tooling around the Caribbean Coast of Guatemala. Every day, a boat driver  will take us wherever we want to go to visit some small towns. Do I hear the beach calling?  We’re also going to be staying in some really cool youth hostels which I’m really looking forward to. If only I could get rid of this damn anxiety!

Stacey

 

A good, old-fashioned dose of hippiedom

Peace and love from San Marcos, Guatemala, on the shore of beautiful Lake Atitlan.

We’re in a state of culture shock. Maybe it’s the vast amount of poverty in this lovely country (way more than Mexico). Maybe it’s the Mayan culture. Or maybe it’s just the hippies. Yeah, I think it’s probably the hippies.

When I researched coming to San Marcos La Laguna, I read that it’s a small, mixed community of ex-pats, indigenous Mayans and travelers seeking spiritual enlightenment. San Marcos is also a place for yoga seekers, truth seekers and seekers in general. There are many other small towns to explore on the shores around Lake Atitlan, but this one caught my interest, especially because it has so many yoga studios. I started taking yoga in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, then in Morelia, Mexico, and continued it in Antigua, Guatemala. I wanted to keep things going in San Marcos, where they have a place called The Yoga Forest up in the hills, as well as this gem in the central village.

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To get to San Marcos La Laguna, we first took a 3-hour tourist shuttle from Antigua to Panajachel, then caught a public lancha (boat) for a 30-minute lake crossing. The VRBO we are renting has its own dock, and the captain said he would drop us there. Well, at least he nodded like he knew the place.

After a beautiful boat ride offering gorgeous views of the lake and the three volcanoes that jut up from its shores, El Capitan dropped us off at a dock near San Marcos. But after we got out, laboriously unloading all our gear (including three bags of groceries), it became clear it wasn’t the right dock. A Guatamelan about 20 years old, who worked at the house attached to that dock, tried to tell us we were in the wrong place, but we could “easily” get to our house, a mere four houses away … along a trail hugging the shore. He grabbed my big bag  (a rolly backpack) and the biggest grocery bag, and bolted down the tiny trail, which soon turned into a jungly trail. We followed, with Andy carrying his own rolly backpack, and each of us wearing our backpacks and toting groceries.

Navigating loose soil, muddy patches, rocks and overgrown vegetation (and parts of the trail that actually went through the shallows of the lake) wasn’t easy … for us. But this guy must have been a sherpa in a previous life, because after about 30 seconds, he was long gone. Completely out of sight! We both couldn’t help but think he was an opportunist who had seized the opportunity to run off with our bags. Goodbye to all of my clothes and a lot of food and provisions. In a bit, Andy started shouting, “Amigo! Amigo!” But we couldn’t see him anywhere. We didn’t know if he went up the hill to one of the houses we were passing, or continued along the trail (which at times we weren’t even sure was a trail anymore).

We stood there for a few minutes, befuddled. We inched ahead, confused. Then we saw a Mayan family on one of the docks, and they pointed ahead, letting us know that the young man was up around the bend. Indeed, from a better vantage point, Andy could make out the flourescent green of the reusable grocery bag we were using. But we were still a far ways away. So the half-mile jungle hike continued. And then we figured out why the young man had lit out like a champion sprinter. He wanted to put those bags down at our destination and then return and help us carry our other bags — which he did.

Here are two important lessons I learned: (1) Four houses away in Mayan culture is very different than four houses away in American suburbia, and (2)  I am way too old and too uncoordinated for jungly hikes.

Truth is, I am not a good hiker under any circumstances, so this excursion was very challenging indeed. Andy held my hand tightly to make sure I didn’t go down. And after the guy came back, he relieved me of my backpack, which helped make the remainder of the trek a little easier, although, for his part, Andy still was carrying  quite a load. Finally we reached the correct dock, where we met up with the man we were supposed to meet in the first place: Jesus!  (No, not the biblical dude, but the caretaker of our rented house).  Hey-Soos! Hoo-Ray!

We tipped and thanked the young man, and then our new man, Jesus, grabbed much of the luggage and bounded up the 55 stairs from the dock to our amazing VRBO rental. Andy, for his part, was still carrying quite a load. But we both made it up the winding stairs (a portion of which had been damaged in the Oaxaca earthquake a few months ago, and hastily repaired) and finally reached our destination. Paradise found.

If you ever want to stay at Lake Atitlan, I can’t recommend this house enough.  Check it out at this link: http://www.vrbo.com/640194?unitId=1187975

Here’s a great photo of the view from our living room. Those are the bases of two volcanoes in the background, and a stained-glass window in the foreground. With two comfy couches perfectly positioned to look out those huge windows, it’s my favorite part of the house.

livingroommarcos

This house has killer lake views from all angles, and it’s an easy 20-minute walk to the town of San Marcos. There are three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge kitchen and several things that we never have accessible to us, wherever we stay, in Mexico or Central America, especially in our long-term rentals: a bathtub, a clothes dryer and a dishwasher. And the kitchen is to die for! I’ve been cooking dinner every night. It’s stocked with marble countertops, an island, great utensils, extra spices and cooking ingredients … and a modern, six-burner, gas stove! The master bedroom is upstairs, with its own balcony (again with amazing views), and the bed has a thick, foam-top mattress.  We are in heaven. I really don’t want to leave this place!

This morning, shortly after we woke up, Andy decided to go jump in the lake. To play it safe, he wore a life vest and climbed down the ladder on our little wooden dock. He said it was cold, but he enjoyed it. I might have to join him before we leave on Tuesday.

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After swimtime, we ate breakfast and drank amazingly rich Guatemalan coffee on our huge deck and watched the boats ferry people to the towns dotted around the lake. Then we walked into little San Marcos, taking the main road (dirt) from the top of our hillside property, after climbing up more steps (100 or so!) to get to our front gate. We didn’t see much along the way, just a few Guatemalans, all of them wishing us “buenas tardes,” even the two men carrying machetes. The landscape was super lush, and there were interesting flowers and plants everywhere. Another jungle path, pretty much, although this one was much easier to traverse (aside from the one huge mud pit created by some rain the previous night).

Once we got into town, we saw free-spirited, young (and more than a few old) hippies everywhere! White dudes with dreadlocks, battered sandals, tie-dyed clothing, colorful Mayan pants … the whole tofu enchilada (which is pretty much what we had for lunch; see below). It was almost like being at a Grateful Dead concert, sans the smell of reefer, although that’s apparently pretty easy to obtain, should one want to.

Many of you know we are from the Bay Area. As such, we are very used to seeing and interacting with free-spirited folks (some might even say I am one myself).  I lived in Berkeley, for crying out loud. I went to Antioch College in Ohio — home to everything hippie. Santa Cruz. The Haight. We are hip. But for some reason, the vibe in this small town surprised us.  Everywhere we looked, there were  signs for yoga classes, silent meditations, mushroom cultivating workshops, Reiki classes and many other spiritual enlightenment activities. There was a “sound bath” meditation class (Google it) and one property on which every structure was shaped like a pyramid. It was all pretty cool. The stores sold incense, homemade lip-balms, kambucha, homemade soaps and tons of patchouli thingees.

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I don’t even know what emotional kinesiology is. Do you?

 

After walking around a bit, we had lunch at a great place called Moonfish Cafe. I had a yummy tofu scramble, and Andy had a falafel burrito along with some kick-ass coffee grown in the Atitlan region and roasted on-site. All of it was outstanding.

When we continued our walk after lunch, we saw yoga studios, massage studios, tons of Mayan clothing for sale, and we sauntered through some very cool pedestrian pathways with beautiful murals.  San Marcos has one actual street midway between the lake and the Mayan part of town, but mainly the village is patchwork of footpaths surrounded by shade-grown coffee, various other crops, jungle vegetation, fruit trees, and various fences and microbusinesses . Funky, colorful murals lined some of the pathways. Did I mention how lush everything is? Guatemala has got to be the most lush country we’ve ever visited. It puts Hawaii to shame.  Everywhere we look we see greenery.

SanMarcoslaneOn our walkabout, we went to a few small health food markets and natural stores. There are no large grocery stores in San Marcos, just small tiendas. We bought some fresh fruit and vegetables and a few staples items including eggs. Groceries are quite expensive here; a little cheaper in the bigger town (Panajachel) across the lake, but still not exactly cheap cheap.
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Tonight I cooked up some fresh vegetable soup for dinner, along with some vegi-burgers purchased in Panajachel.  Andy’s listening to the World Series and reading Lonely Planet — and all is good. (P.S. The soup turned out great, but the vegi-burgers were yucky.)

In the next few days, we’ll check out some of the other towns surrounding the lake, all of them a bit less crunchy than San Marcos, but each with their own cool vibe apparently. Lake Atitlan is beautiful. We’re happy campers. Even thought we’re a bit far from the village, we’re enjoying the beauty of the lake and the peaceful surroundings. Yet another adventure.

Stacey
(with a bit (stacey says a lot) of editing by Andy)

Out of my comfort zone in Guatemala

Yesterday I spent most of the day completely out of my comfort zone.

I’m glad I did.

Captain Andy and I decided to take a three-hour bus journey to a one of the largest craft markets in Central America. We left the house around 9:30 AM and boarded a bus know as a Guatemalan chicken bus. A chicken bus is an old U.S. newly retired school bus.  Once these buses have about 150,000 miles on em, they get tossed aside and purchased by other countries to live new lives.  You see chicken buses all over Guatemala. Most are colorfully painted and have interesting names.

Chickenbus

We had been warned that traveling on chicken buses especially in Guatemala City was dangerous because gangs frequently target them and rob passengers.  But since we’re not in Guatemala City, I decided to give this method of transportation a chance. But to be uber safe, I left my purse, phone, and Kindle at home and just brought me.  Andy didn’t carry anything except some cash and his phone.

Over the course of six hours, my life passed in front of me perhaps 15 times. I can’t possibly describe the sheer panic I felt sitting on the bus. The drivers seem to have little regard for human life.  Playing chicken with cars, animals, and other buses must be in their genes!  While driving on tiny, windy mountain roads, we were slipping and sliding all over the place. They were taking corners so fast, I felt like I was sitting in a vat of Crisco!  I was hanging on to Andy for dear life.  And, to make matters worse, we were packed into the bus like sardines. Each seat barely accommodated two people, (remember the bus is used for transporting kids, not adults) but there were so many passengers, we had to sit three to a seat. On the way home, a very obese man had his gigantic tummy stuck in my face (I was repulsed) and there was a very drunk young man on the other side of me. I  thought he was going to hurl all over me. No joke. Not the typical first class bus experience we’re used to in Mexico!

Even at the cheap rate of $4 for a 6 hour trip ($2 each) we’ve decided to bag the chicken buses from now on.  We’re going to try traveling  via tourist shuttles instead. I wouldn’t mind being on the chicken bus for a very short journey,  but anything over 30 minutes is too long.  It was a journey we shall never forget.

A few comments about the market… it was fantastic!  What a feast for the eyes!  Many many women were dressed in traditional clothes and the colors of the fabrics in the market were just spectacular.

Andy brought a really nice woven hat.   I didn’t buy anything,  but I really enjoyed walking around. The harassment factor was high, with several women following us around, trying to give us the “hard sell”,  but we still had fun seeing everything.

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Interestingly enough, I think some vendors were trying to misrepresent their merchandise because I saw a lot of clothes I see in Mexico being passed off as authentic Guatemalan clothes.  Ha!  I knew better. We were also told certain things were hand-made, but I’m pretty sure they were machine made.  With traditional embroidery, it’s often hard to tell.

Shabbat Shalom!

On Friday night, after watching an incredible bluegrass concert in the smallest bar I’ve ever been in, Andy and I went in search of dinner. All of the sudden,. we passed a very large looking building. We peered into the courtyard where we noticed a large photo of an old man with a beard. Could it be? No way!!!  Yes, it was!  It was the Rebbe!  We ran smack into the Antigua Chabad House!  All of the sudden, happy young travelers were waving us in.  For those of you who don’t know what Chabad is, it’s a Orthodox Jewish religious organization.  They provide social services to Jews from all religious denominations including community centers and camps.  They have Chabad houses all over the world and on many college campuses. Since it was Friday night, they had just started Shabbat and a spirited song fest had just begun.

There were about 18 young Israeli travelers there, no Americans and one person from Mexico City.  The young rabbi and his wife warmly welcomed us.

Shabbat dinner was fantastic!  We munched on fresh Challah, Israeli salads, vegetarian soup, and a main course of couscous, kosher chicken and kosher meatballs. Shots of rum appeared too!  There was tons of singing in Hebrew and everyone was super happy to be together.

I’ve celebrated Shabbat in many, many places in my life, but this was one of the lovelist Shabbats I have ever experienced.  I really want to go back next Friday night.

Housing probs

Two small housing problems in Antigua have plagued our visit.

  1. We had no water last night at all!  The management company came over this morning and fixed it. Perhaps they filled up a tank we can’t see?  Now we have water again.  I had enough water last night to do dishes so I’m not sure when it crapped out. I think about 9 PM.
  2. Our hot water barely works. I’m getting a warm shower each day, but certainly not hot.  But I’m getting used to it, and it’s bothering me less and less.
  3. We can’t get wifi downstairs, only upstairs, but this is a minor inconvienance.

Otherwise, everything in our house is good.

Green Acres is the place to be

On Saturday we went to a local urban farm located a 10 minute walk from our apartment.  They had an organic market we wanted to check out. It was such a cool place. It was really a large farm and they had live music playing. We toured the property and hung out with the sheeps, and chickens. I inhaled fresh lavendar and looked at the beautiful volcanos off in the distance. Then we read in their lovely yoga/chill space and enjoyed some fresh juice and some fresh ginger ale.  I’m hoping to return next Saturday or on Thursday night when they have live music. They have a large organic cafe located on the farm and the food looked incredible.

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Habla Espanol???

I can’t use chemo brain as an excuse any longer.  I’ve been done with chemo for almost two years.  I just have to admit that I have sh-t for brains.  I can’t seem to remember any Spanish verbs.  I study them,  I think I know them, and then they go out of my brain. It’s so frustrating!   I’m committed to studying Spanish, but it’s so bad!  I know a ton of words, but I can barely put a simple sentence together.  You’d think something would start to click by now. I’m taking classes two hours a day of instruction for the next week. My teacher speaks to me mostly in Spanish and while I think my comprehension isn’t too horrible, I can’t carry a conversation with her.  However, I refuse to be defeated!!!  I shall persevere.

con estoy yo si adios

See, I couldn’t even get that right!!!   Andy had to fix it.

Con ese, digo “Adios!”

Stacey

Goodbye Mexico, hello Guatemala!

Greetings from Antigua, Guatemala. We arrived late last night after a wonderful, and very relaxing 10 day stay in Zihuatanejo. It was nice to see my mom and visit the beach. Now we’ll be on the road for the next 7 1/2 weeks, experiencing life in Guatemala and in Oaxaca, Mexico.  We’ll return to Zihuatanejo to start a four month stay on December 1.

Now we’re staying in a one-bedroom VRBO that’s a ten minute walk from the city center. It’s GIGANTIC.  It’s got a ton of classic colonial charm including beautiful colonial light fixtures, amazing Guatemalan tile work, and it even has a bathtub.  However, it’s not the place we booked, so this morning I contacted the management company and asked them why we had been put in a different apartment. The company explained that the apartment we had originally booked had recently experienced water damage, so they gave us another apartment. Late this afternoon, we were able to peek into the water damaged apartment and it’s much, much smaller than the castle we are currently living in.  Score one for the Ohr’s!   The apartment is a little rough around the edges, with scrapped walls,  some sewage odor from the toilet, and a bit of peeling paint,  but its bones are simply beautiful, so we are not complaining. The neighborhood seems very safe, too. And I’m excited to go to yoga class right across the street. Here are a few photos of this cool place. Notice how high the ceilings are, and how beautiful the tile work is?

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We arrived late last night and the property management company picked us up from the Guatemala City airport (for free) which was nice since we arrived on the late side.  Guatemala City is home to at least ten Golden Arches, a bunch of Taco Bells,  a few Denny’s thrown in for good measure, and a bunch of other American restaurants.

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We were happy to see William when we arrived. He drove us to our apartment which was about a 45 minute ride.

This morning we started our day with coffee and a typical Guatemalan breakfast of fried plantains, eggs, beans, tortillas, and avocado.  I liked the black beans and fried plantains.

Then we went exploring.  Antigua is a very old colonial town, but it’s very, very touristy!  And prices are substantially higher than in Morelia. It’s not as expensive as the United States, but the prices seem quite high to us.  We are in sticker shock and we’re in gringo shock!

After breakfast, we went to a very good fruit and vegetable mercado and bought some peppers, (yellow or orange are my favorite), some grapes, tomatoes, an artichoke, bananas, avocados,  and two new fruits never seen before.

Mercado

Then we walked to a large grocery store. The market was well-appointed, but I had to get used to many new products.  I wasn’t able to find my coveted hummus, but I was able to score some incredible tofu. They also had a good selection of cheese.  We spent about $85.00 total and I anticipate the food will last us about 10 days.

Now a bit more about this apartment…

Unfortunately, this particular VRBO unit did not provide much in the way of supplies.  No cleaning supplies, no spices, no dish soap, not even a sponge for washing dishes.  I will have to mention this in my on-line review at the end of our stay.  We ended up having to spend money on simple spices and on other assorted things. It’s a drag!  We try to closely watch our expenses, and we hate spending money on things that should be provided as a part of our rental.  It’s one of the downfalls of choosing to move around so much. This is also one reason I’m in favor of bunking at youth hostels. They seem to have really well-appointed kitchens with spices galore and pots and pans so we don’t end up having to spend as much at the grocery store. But two weeks in a youth hostel (even with a private room) is a lot of time for people as old as us!  It’s fine for a few nights, but I don’t think it would work long-term.

Over the next two weeks and I’m hoping to attend Spanish school for a few hours a day to improve my Spanish.  We’ll also take  few day trips. Then, after Antigua, we’re headed to Lake Atilan for a week.  After that, the ruins of Tikal are on the agenda and some other assorted travel in Guatemala. Then we’ll fly to Oaxoca.

Antiguachurch

This colonial town has a lot of nice churches.

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Now that we are wandering for the next 7.5 weeks, I wanted to share a few thoughts I have on making a nomadic lifestyle work.  It’s been a steep learning curve, but I do feel like I have some good suggestions to share for those of you who are considering hitting the open road for more than a few weeks.

  1. I highly suggest booking properties through Airbnb or VRBO that have more than one apartment unit on-site.  The more apartments the better.  I think multi-unit apartments are safer, (because others are generally around) and because they almost always have staff around to assist you if you run into problems. But even more importantly, when your apartment is lacking something like a bathmat, or kitchen towels and hand towels or even frying pans, you simply contact the property management company and they will borrow stuff from other apartments. Today we were missing all of the above, and I found the on-site housekeeper who quickly went into another unit and got us everything we needed.  This is the second time we’ve stayed in a multi-unit establishment, and the same thing happened then.
  2. If you are moving around a lot, you won’t be able to take a lot of things with you, so the things you do take with you must serve multiple purposes. One thing we really have found useful is two small, yet highly portable bluetooth speakers. We can easily move them from room to room and we like taking them to the beach too.  We just added an echo dot into the mix and so far, so good.
  3. We haven’t perfected the art of  traveling with so many electronic cords yet…but we’re working on it. Traveling with so many multiple cords for all of our electronics is a bit of a drag, but manageable. I think we may eventually invest in a charging unit like this one.  It probably would come in handy.chargingtetacle

 

 

 

4. I’m finding that I still have to make hard decisions about what to take and what to leave behind. I thought it would become easier, but it’s not.  For example, I packed an electronic scale to weight and measure food because I’m watching my weight. I also travel with a set of measuring cups, and spoons.  It’s kind of a drag traveling with them because they take up a tiny bit of space. And in order to find space for them I had to take one less pair of shoes. And sadly, I only took about five pairs of earrings instead of my usual 20 plus???  It’s not a big deal, but something had to give!!!

For this particular trip, I really downsized my wardrobe  collection.  I didn’t bring as many dressy clothes. I don’t think I will need them in Guatemala or in Oaxaca.

I’ll write again after we’ve explored Antigua a bit more.

Ciao for now.