Moreno took a long, hot shower, trimmed his goatee to perfection, clipped his toe nails, doused himself in cologne, and donned his best outfit – a silk white button-up and smooth black slacks with shoes to match. The reflection in the mirror showed a damn good looking man who was about to have a good night, with stories to tell for years. He flicked off the lights, closed the door behind him, and strutted off to his friends Raz and Quinn who’d also be looking damn good after a long day sitting in the Caribbean sun.
Their door was unlocked so he opened it. The lights were off. “Let’s hit it, men! Puerto Viejo awaits!” he said. No response. He fumbled for the lights and flicked them on to the sound of groaning.
“Turn the lights out,” shouted Quinn. “We’re sleeping.” He lay on his bed without the sheets, just a pair of saggy briefs covering his behind. A large fan stood vibrating above his big torso, a scene of sloth.
“What are you doing?” Raz grunted, squinting his eyes and covering his head with a pillow. “Close the door. You’re letting the bugs in.”
“Tell me this is a joke. It’s 9 o’clock. We’re going out.” Moreno said from the doorway. Behind him was the sound of loud music and girls screaming happily. The hotel’s rooms opened up to a central, outdoor plaza, where the sounds of the partying town beckoned.
“We read a little and hit the sack early.” Raz said. “Save your money. There’s no reason to go out.”
“The hell there isn’t. You two suckers might be married, but I’m not.” Moreno said, anger entering his voice. “This is god damn party central, can’t you hear that?” Particularly loud bass pounded nearby, most likely at the beachside club that was scheduled to have a female mudwrestling contest later.
“We’re too old for that, and so are you.” Quinn said without opening his eyes. “Go back to your room, get undressed, and get into bed. We’ll get an early start tomorrow. I’ll buy you a coffee.”
“I’m outta here in thirty seconds. I swear I’ll never travel again with you.” Moreno threatened. “I didn’t come here to sleep.”
“We don’t care about the girls and the music and booze. Go back to your room and get a good read in.” Raz said from under his pillow. “You can borrow my Tolstoy.”
“Or my finance guide. You should start thinking about your mutual fund portfolio.” Quinn added.
“This is pathetic. I’m out of here.” Moreno stormed off into the warm, tropical night.
“Close the light.” Raz shouted after him.
Four hours later Raz and Quinn were startled from sleep by an incessant banging on their door and angry shouting.
“Who is it?” Quinn whispered in the darkness.
“I think its Moreno. I’m scared.”
“Who is it?” Quinn shouted.
“OPEN UP YOU MUTHA #@#@#@!!!
“You open it.” Raz whispered.
“No. I’m scared. You answer it. You’ve known him since you were four.”
Raz padded over to the door. “Mike?” He whispered.
“OPEN THE @#@#@# DOOR OR I’LL BREAK IT DOWN!!!” Moreno shouted while still pounding on it.
Raz spoke through the door. “Go to your room.”
“I DON’T HAVE MY KEYS!!! OPEN UP!!!”
Raz opened the door and quietly said, “Shhh. People are sleeping around here. Shhh.”
“SHUT UP!!! GET YOUR ASSES OUTTA BED!!!” Moreno stormed into the room, shoving Raz aside.
The light came on, revealing Moreno’s bleeding and swollen nose. It was bright red, the size of a soft-shelled taco. The flesh below his eyes above his nose was starting to turn purple.
“Holy @#@#! What happened to your face?” Quinn sat up in bed.
“I TOOK A FACE-PLANT!!!. WE’RE LEAVING! WE’RE GOING BACK TO SAN JOSE AND W’ERE GOING HOME!!!”
“Quiet down, people are sleeping around here.” Raz repeated, patting his hands gently in the air as though he was patting an invisible cat.
“How many beers did you have?” Quinn’s question went unanswered, but he continued. “Was it a good time? Lot of girls out?”
Moreno had gone into the bathroom to look at his reflection. His nose had enlarged even further. He pounded his fist on the wall when he realized just how bad it looked.
“MY PASSPORT’S GONE!!! MY WALLET! WHERE’S MY CAMERA?!” Moreno shouted as he came back into the room. Quinn cracked a laugh. “REAL FUNNY, ISN’T, QUINN?! I SHOULD BUST YOUR PALE ASS OUT OF THAT BED!”
“You must have lost them when you took the face-plant.” Quinn said. “Check your pockets.”
“I DID!!!” Moreno roared.
“We’ll find your stuff in the morning. Don’t worry about. Check your bags – maybe you left everything in your room.”
Moreno had started to calm, but was still pacing in anger. “My nose is broken. Look at it.”
“Broken or not, it’s not a big deal. It’ll heal.”
“He’s right. We’ll sort it out in the morning.”
“MY NOSE IS BROKEN!!!” Moreno roared.
“Kearney broke his nose once, and he’s fine. He’s the head of his department, don’t…”
“SHUT UP!!!” Moreno headed for the door. He spoke in a mocking, nasally voice. “Get a good read in. Get a good read in. @#@# YOU!!!” He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Quinn and Raz both laughed and went back to bed.
The next morning the three friends marched to the bar where Moreno took his face-plant, and miraculously an honest bartender had found his passport, camera, and wallet, and had placed everything safely aside. And Moreno’s nose turned out not to be broken. On Moreno’s camera were several pictures of him posing with beautiful girls in his arms.
“That was a damn good night.” Moreno said reminiscing, his swollen nose pushing his bottom eye lids half closed. A proud smile stretched across his face as he scrolled through the pictures he’d taken the night before.
“Even with the face-plant?” Someone asked.
“Hell yeah. Get a good read in my ass.”
Who’s the Big Baby?
It’s humbling when you accuse someone of being a big baby then discover that the big baby is yourself. I learned this in Cahuita, Costa Rica.
Our goal was to go zip-lining. I’d skydived two miles up, so I thought zip-lining would be easy. Moreno was refusing, feigning disinterest to mask his fear, but I pressured and mocked him. I’d known him for decades and knew he was a big baby.
As children, if the lights were turned off while in the basement he’d cry and run home. Once, I chased him a quarter mile with a worm. Today, he’s big with tattoos and a goatee, but I knew better; zip-lining would expose his inner big baby.
Three guides gave us helmets and locked us into harnesses. They had us glide along a ten foot cable, six feet high – nothing like the 2,500 foot cables we’d use, 400 feet up.
The first section was a half-mile long; the end disappeared into fog. I went first, before fear could register. I was hooked onto the cable and gravity took over, taking me over a riverbed hundreds of feet below. The cable clanged as I zzzzzzed along, accelerating. Every muscle in my body locked. Inertia halted me forty feet short of the end, a massive tree. I turned backwards, and hand over hand pulled myself in. Moreno came next without big baby symptoms, even though he got stranded about thirty feet out and needed the help of our guide.
The next section was shorter but steep, requiring braking using a leather glove. To slow, you grabbed the cable and pulled down. Too much you’d completely stop 1,000 feet out. No pull you’d smash into the anchor tree. And never touch the cable ahead of your wheels, unless a crushed hand and ejection off the cable is desired. Halfway I braked and immediately had difficulties. More than a touch decelerated you so quickly that your body would swing forward and up, giving a falling sensation. The second brake jolted violently, spinning me backwards. I accelerated and tried braking again, but realized my thumb was ahead of the wheels. I pulled away frantically, forcing myself into an uncontrollable spin. The ground was far below and spinning. Frozen in fear, I held on and closed my eyes, barreling into the guides who managed to absorb my speed, preventing a tree-human collision.
I was shaken to the core and said I wasn’t continuing, which was impossible because each section started and began over fifty feet up in the trees, with no ground access. The only way down was by cable. I paced about, despairing that I had to continue. I said that I wasn’t going to use the brake; I would rather smash into the anchors. An automatic brake was rigged at the end of each cable to slow me, and I continued, a ball of fear, until the end. Moreno carried on, with Quinn confidently behind him.
During dinner Moreno looked across the table at me, grinning triumphantly. “You were a scared little boy today.” He said. “And you thought I’d be the big baby.”
Of the seven Central American nations, Belize may be the most unique. Unlike the rest of the region, which was colonized by Spain, Belize was controlled by Britain until independence in 1981, when it dropped its colonial name, British Honduras.
Besides Jamaica and a few tiny islands, Belize is the only place south of the U.S. where English is predominantly spoken. And because of the British Empire’s influence, Belize’s people are unusually diverse. Many are African Creoles, but there are also Mayans, especially in the west near Guatemala. In Belize City, Hindu Indians and Muslim Pakistanis have made homes; women in bright saris pass Rastafarians on streets. There are also Chinese, who own many stores and hotels in the country. Most unexpected were communities of Mennonites, people very similar to the Amish in appearance and culture. We traveled most of Belize in old American school buses, and on them was this interesting mosaic of people.
You won’t love Belize City, as it’s seedy and decayed, but it’s worth a day, being the only place resembling a city in the country. We had traveled five hours from the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, so we had no choice arriving in the late afternoon but to stay the night in the city. There are some good restaurants and a pleasant area near the docks for large cruise ships and yachts, but other than that there's not much to see or do. And at night it is certainly a sketchy place. Although Belize City is quite small, with less than 100,000 inhabitants, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world, double that of Detroit, ten times as many as in Boston, and sixteen times as many as in Lowell, Ma. Putting aside these terrible statistics, however, it is important to note that the vast majority of those murdered are those already directly linked with drug cartels and their savage operations, so as long as visitors steer clear of buying and selling drugs and guns, and visiting brothels run by gangs, your only injury will likely be a stubbed toe as you hop into the bathwater-warm pool at your hotel after a peaceful day of sightseeing and drinking Belikin.
From Belize City it’s an easy ferry ride to numerous islands scattered within the world’s second largest coral reef. San Pedro is the most visited - it’s a stopping point for cruise ships and a favorite for those looking for all-inclusive resorts. Only 45 minutes away, we instead chose Caye Caulker, not much more than a large sandbar with palm trees and clusters of restaurants and small hotels. During the day the sun is bright and hot, and most people pass the day napping, or lazily wading in the warm Caribbean. There are just a handful of cars on the island, as most people get about by foot on white sand paths. With the setting sun hordes of dreadlocked backpackers with rum on their breath materialize. Things liven up dramatically at bars and restaurants advertising “Da Best Damn Food in Da Caribbean” or the equivalent with more “colorful” language. The clawless spiny lobster is much larger than its northern cousin, and it matches its name - my fingers and bottom lip were bleeding after harvesting every morsel from the big crustacean. Every restaurant or hotel seemed to have a long dock that extended hundreds of feet into the sea, where anyone was welcome to lounge with a drink or hop into the water at their leisure. What I remember most about Caye Caulker is not wearing shoes or a shirt the entire week I was there, day or night. Time and dates quickly lose meaning under such wonderful, lazy conditions.
We eventually went south by bus and boat to the peninsula town of Placencia and stayed in an inn owned by a retired American couple. The town’s “main” street was a sidewalk that traversed sand dunes where stilt houses surrounded by coconut husks sunbathed. The place epitomized tropical sedateness. By day wind blew through clotheslines, the occasional fly was swatted, mango smoothies were sipped, waves lapped the shore, naps were taken in hammocks as unread books rested in laps, and concerns of home passed with not much more than a yawn and sigh – true paradise. For the blissful traveler, Belize is certainly a place of no worries.
Copan RuinasWhen my alarm buzzes before dawn in December, and my first task is to leave my warm bed to scrape the ice off my windshield, the idea of selling everything and moving to Honduras doesn’t seem so absurd.
In the western hills, near Guatemala, is a little town named Copan. Its draw is its proximity to the most impressive Mayan ruins in Honduras. From town, it’s an easy walk to the ancient site, which sprawls for nearly a square mile. When it was abandoned millennia ago, the jungle soon consumed it, burying it with thick vegetation and vines. But in the past few decades most of the larger pyramids and palaces have been cleared and renovated. Many appear in their original state, as when the Mayans ruled. What I found amazing, and disturbing, are the pyramids that have remained buried in the jungle. If not for the markers nearby, one would never know that the steep hills throughout the forest were unnatural. Not a carved stone was visible, trees with twenty foot trunks and thick vines smothered centuries of Mayan work. The tree roots were like fingers of a giant claw, reclaiming the land. It made me think of the alarmist talk on the environment. Once we’re gone, in two thousand years there’ll be little evidence that our civilization existed, no matter the damage we cause.
But on those cold mornings, it’s not the Mayan ruins I think of. It’s Copan itself. There’s only two days in the week there – Sunday and the others. Sunday is the only day that’s different; bells ring from the single church in the square, and the locals dress their best to attend mass. Everything seems a bit formal.
The other days don’t need names, and you lose track quickly. The Sun rises, and roosters crow. Men walk or ride in pick-ups to work on coffee and banana farms, each carrying a machete and wearing a Stetson hat. Women walk their uniformed children to school and later sell trinkets or fruit on the cobbled streets. It’s best to get out early; by noon the Sun is high and its heat even pushes the packs of scrawny dogs into shadows. There’s a tropical sedateness that comes over the town, and everything grows tired. Even the bank guards doze. It’s the perfect time to have a cold drink and then nap until dusk.
At night, it seems as if the town’s population triples and takes on a new character, a boisterous, festive one. Colorful lights strung on palms and over restaurants create a romantic ambiance, and the perfectly warm temperature makes one see that life is great. Live music and laughter emanates from every window, and children chase frogs and cats down streets as their mothers curse at them to return. At midnight it stops abruptly, and the next day is exactly the same.
Copan is not so far away, but in the depths of our winters it may as well be on the farside of the Moon.
South of the Equator
Toilets supposedly flush in the opposite direction south of the equator than they do in the northern hemisphere. But now that I´m in Ecuador, I´m confused, as the toilets seem to swallow waste straight down without any spin at all. And friends back home are of no help, since some claim their toilets flush clockwise, while others say counter-clockwise. These are important things to think about.
Putting our interest in flushing toilets aside, it´s my first time in South America, and two weeks into it I wonder why I´ve never come before. Besides being relatively close to home, Ecuador is simply a wonderful place, full of wonderful people.
Ecuador´s capital, Quito, is set in a valley where from any point in the city, huge mountains can be seen. Landing at night the plane descends between clusters of orange lights that seem to be floating in blackness. And despite its location on the equator, its weather is perfect due to its two-mile elevation – at night it´s outright chilly. The Old Town is tightly packed with Spanish colonial architecture where every usable space is filled with a café, restaurant, bar, or shop. Inca women, dressed in brightly colored dresses and alpaca stockings, wearing black hats that resemble top hats, sell fruit and coconut sweets on every corner. Enormous cathedrals rise high above the reddish clay roofs of the surrounding homes, and from their sharp spires the view will hold your attention for longer than expected. Above it all, overlooking all of Quito, atop a peak called El Panecillo, is an enormous aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary.
To the south is Vulcan Cotopaxi, its 19,150 foot peak always white in snow, even though the steaming Amazon rainforest begins only a hundred miles to its east. The Andean plateau is a diverse place that will take your breath away, both literally and figuratively. Some areas at these high elevations are barren and dry, others are green and lush with pine forests, depending upon what side of the Andes it is positioned. Generally, the western side of the Andes is dry while the eastern is saturated with the moisture produced in the Amazon Basin. Travelers can move through these varied environments in shockingly short periods of time, being in essentially a desert for breakfast and a rainforest long before your stomach begins growling for lunch.
Further south down the Andes, which make up the spine of Ecuador, is the town of Banos. Its name means ¨bath¨ in Spanish, and here there are numerous waterfalls and natural hot springs that have been harnessed and made into outdoor pools for the public. Few things are more nourishing than a dip in 110 degree water, while cold rain drizzles and heavy fog smothers the mountains above.
Ingapirca is home to the best preserved Inca ruins in South America outside of Machu Picchu in Peru. It is amazing to see Canari stone walls that are 1,000 years old still standing strong and straight as though they were laid down a decade before. The Incans eventually dominated the Canari people, and built the famous Temple of the Sun that stands some forty feet above its surroundings. It was built without mortar, and its stones were so perfectly cut that only a few have lost their exact horizontal and vertical lines. Walking over the ancient stonework are llamas that graze on grass and wild flowers. And in the nearby village, people still speak Incan as they always have, their natural language long before the Conquistadors brought Spanish to the continent. After a simple meal of potatoes and cornbread, we settled in for a sleepless night in a shelter that felt more like a cell than a room, shivering, watching our breath in the frigid air as we pulled the alpaca blankets to our chins.
The only question my wife and I had at the time was if we should go south, into Peru, or north into Colombia. Perhaps both.