We have spent the week in Chetumal, Mexico, the gateway to Belize, nurturing Peter back to health and recovering ourselves. Poor Paul has been exceedingly patient with the convalescent process but was absolutely delighted when we transferred to a hotel with a pool yesterday and he actually had something to do. We haven’t done a lot of sight-seeing but have done a lot of cuddling, reading and resting and now, with our immunities bolstered, are definitely ready to take on Belize!
At the pool yesterday, we met Paula and Mary from Ireland who were just wrapping up a RTW trip. They had traveled extensively through southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji as well as Central America. They raved about Vietnam (absolutely loved north Vietnam), Ko Phi Phi island in Thailand, New Zealand (“a wondrous site around every bend”), Antigua in Guatemala and most recently Cayes Caulker in Belize where Paula snorkeled and saw the most amazing and abundant marine life of the trip. It had been an amazing year but they were ready to return home! They were very excited about our trip and we wished each other well.
Tuesday, July 19
Peter was of course still quite weak on his birthday but his spirits were bolstered by a card that our friends from across the street in Eugene, Bruce, Gail, Nick and Amelia, had given him to open on his birthday and the light-weight flip-flops Paul and I bought for him for the beach. Since non-essential, material gifts only generate more weight to carry, Steve, Paul and I wrote this poem as a tribute to Peter on his birthday:
Perseverance, never gives up!
Energetic when well, loves to skateboard
Technical, especially with words
Eager to learn
Radiant with gifts from God
Eyes, beautiful, big, brown eyes
Good at geometry and math in general
Argumentative and proud of it
Ollies 6 stairs now
Reader, avid (he’s already read 4 books in 10 days!)
Taco Bell crispy chicken burritos and Toby’s tofu pate (what he craved when he was sick!)
Birthday blessings, sweet Peter!
Sunday, July 17
Off to Xel-Ha we go! What a wonderful, interactive aquatic park! We had an absolute ball, hiking along the jungle trail, swinging on a rope swing and plunging into a cenote, a fresh water pool in the limestone caves, floating on inner tubes through a mangrove and along the fresh water canals to the lagoon, and finally snorkeling among coral reefs, caves, and a natural, rugged shoreline. It was Peter and Paul’s first experience snorkeling and I had the honor of accompanying them on their inaugural snorkeling trek! Near the mouth of the bay, Paul and Peter began beckoning me feverishly. I have no idea what it was but we were swimming over some pretty big fish, with fluorescent green tails! Too cool! But the most amazing experience was swimming through a channel among a school of large, blue fish, clown fish and small fry. It was absolutely magical. We swam through that channel several times, making ourselves as still as possible so we could mingle among the fish and encourage some close encounters of the fish kind!
At the cliff jump at the park, I was amused by the family from New York with their crass accents encouraging even the littlest to jump in. Later, they sunbathed in lawn chairs next to ours and again their lively, off-color exchanges were quite entertaining. Along with other Americans, there were people from all over the world—Japanese, British, Africans, as well as Mexican families. Though it was very crowded, the park was so efficiently managed it didn’t feel over-run with people. It was only as we were preparing to leave that we were reminded of the impending hurricane again as all park staff were mobilized in a massive effort to secure the park—dismantling signs, awnings, store inventory, lawn chairs and securing all appendages. At first we were wondering if they did this every night but it was Paul that first deduced that these must be exceptional precautions in preparation for the hurricane. We confirmed that it was indeed but that they were planning to be open the next day. (another post note: It´s a good thing they did take those precautions because the eye of the hurricane traveled over the park!!!)
We waited for our collectivo, the van back to town, with a French couple. She had taught at a French school in Mexico for a year a few years back and spoke fluent Spanish. We began making inquiries about the hurricane. One elder in the van said he’d been through this before; we would all be safe, not to worry. But, when we arrived back to town and saw all the locals preparing to depart and the bus station overflowing with locals and tourists trying to get out of town, we began to worry. (The second class buses were so packed with people, even the drivers area up to the front door was overflowing with passengers. It must have been absolutely suffocating! Many tourists remarked about this phenomenon that you would only see in a developing country.) We immediately tried to get tickets out of Tulum but there were no tickets available until the following afternoon at 2:30 p.m. We purchased the tickets and headed to the Weary Traveler to check in there and get some food. Sure enough, the place was a-buzz with talk of the hurricane. A band of crazy expatriates were planning to strap themselves to the ruins for the hurricane. A group of young women had already booked their bus ticket for the next day at 12:30 p.m. Another group of young people were planning to hunker down there at the Weary Traveler on the second floor with other hearty guests. That’s when we heard about the curfew; apparently a curfew had been called for 1:30 p.m. the next day. Our bus was at 2:30 p.m! That’s when we started getting serious about getting out of Dodge! We hailed a taxi, negotiated a price first to Merida (in northern Yucatan), hustled back to the hostel and packed our bags and checked out in a ½ hour flat. We had a short delay at the bus terminal trying to get our refund when their computers crashed. As we waited we discussed our options with our taxi driver and adjusted our course to head south instead of northwest. It turned out to be a very good decision as Merida was on the hurricane’s path.
Thus started our wild ride to Chetumal at 10 p.m. at night. In Mexico, driving is a communal experience. Because of the decrepit road conditions and 2-lane thoroughfares, Mexican drivers have developed a tried and true form of communication to cooperatively tackle the driving experience as safely as possible. Larger, slower vehicles impeding traffic signal drivers stuck behind them that it is safe to pass by putting on their left blinker. In addition, lights and of course horns are also used to signal a variety of traffic communiqués. Though I was impressed with the relative sophistication of this communication, passing 2 and sometimes three buses was nevertheless nothing short of terrifying. Peter, Paul and I sat in the back seat and clenched each other’s hands and prayed as we passed and passed again. I finally told the taxi driver, who was a nice guy named Roger, that I would pay more if he didn’t pass quite as much. Fortunately in the latter half of the trip, the traffic dissipated and we didn’t have to pass as much. We arrived at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, checked into our hotel and crashed for the night, though Steve and I remained on hurricane alert through most of what was remaining of the night. The next morning was blistering hot and perfectly calm, no signs of the hurricane on the horizon, but Peter was sick. I went in search of a hotel with air conditioning and we quickly transferred him to the new hotel and began treating him for vomiting. By now, Paul was also sick and Steve and I broke into our homeopathic and first aid kits, as well as our reference book about health issues while traveling in developing countries.
By the afternoon, Paul was significantly better but Peter was still not well and was developing a fever. At about 8 p.m., Paul was the only healthy member of the family. Steve and I started our first rounds of vomiting while Peter began to have diarrhea in addition to his other ailments. Knowing that restaurants and other establishments might be closing early that night in anticipation of the hurricane, I asked the front desk if they could call a doctor to examine Peter at least. When there weren’t any doctors available to make house calls, they offered to drive us to the hospital. At this point, though I was miserable myself, I wanted to be with Peter so off we went. Unfortunately, none of the doctors spoke English but I managed to communicate his symptoms in between excusing myself to throw up and go to the bathroom. I was ever vigilant however and we were treated very professionally. All the supplies were sterile and the accommodations clean, though far less sophisticated than our medical facilities. Once an initial diagnosis was made for Peter (an intestinal bacterial infection) and he was on intravenous antibiotics, they examined me and gave me an electrolyte concoction for dehydration as well as other medications to ease my nausea and stomach pain. I actually revived sometime in the middle of the night and was able to maintain my vigil relatively pain-free with the exception of still frequent bouts of diarrhea. Our doctor came in to check in on us and we engaged in a lively and remarkably fluid conversation. We talked about our children and actually got into politics. He was the member of the Orange political party, comprised of doctors and other medical professionals championing the health and well being of the poor. His medical degrees were in gastroenterology and public health. We discussed liberal political movements and he told me of his hero, Che Guevara of Cuba. I didn’t know this but Guevara was also a physician. My doctor friend’s oldest son shares Che’s middle name, Ernesto. I enthusiastically told him that my friend Betsy in Eugene named her oldest son Che after Guevara too! I told him about our trip and he said he’d like to visit Italy and Cuba! He has good friends in Italy who would like to host his children in Italy for a year during secondary school. I encouraged him to give his children that opportunity if it was possible. We must have talked for an hour or so and it helped pass the night. I was very grateful for his expertise and care for Peter as Peter was slowly improving. By the morning of course, we both desperately wanted to go home. I was released but they wanted to keep Peter for the day to see how he did when they introduced food. I had to keep Peter from going absolutely crazy as we had nothing to do. Steve and Paul arrived in the late morning and boy, were we glad to see them! They provided some diversion but they had several errands to run and we were once again left in that “cell” as Peter called it. At around 5 p.m., he was examined again and once again, we were detained. Because there was still considerable activity in his intestines and his diarrhea had persisted, they wanted to take a stool and urine culture. Eager to get the heck out of there, Peter produced on demand and then had me ask the nurse every half hour if the results were back. Finally at 8 p.m. the doctor came in to give us the results and it wasn’t a clean bill of health: he had amoebas too. He could stay in the hospital and continue with IV treatment or return home, take oral medication for parasites and drink this ghastly electrolyte solution, the one I had had to ingest over the course of the last day. Hands down, we were ready to take our chances and get the heck out of there. Dressed in his hospital gown because he didn’t have any clean clothes left, we hailed a taxi and had a joyful reunion at the hotel. A shower and a real bed never felt so good!
July 16, 2005
After a couple of days at Playa del Carmen, we decided to head for more remote parts (though Playa is lovely, the beaches are crowded and it’s becoming quite commercialized)—destination: Tulum, further south down the peninsula. Once again, we found ourselves trundling with all our gear in the mid afternoon in search of a place to stay. We were dropped off in the pueblo, the small town, and were desperate for the beach but discovered that the beach was still a few miles away so we decided to check out the Weary Traveler, a hostel just two blocks from the bus depot. Hostels as you may know have quite a stimulating environment, attracting travelers from around the world. This hostel offered a nightly BBQ and operated a cyber café as well. Though they didn’t have any accommodations for the four of us, their sister hostel, Rancho Tranquillo, just down the street, had availability. We settled in our rustic cabana, complete with a thatched roof, hammock on the porch and mosquito nets on the beds. The Rancho Tranquillo hostel offered a communal kitchen, community area, book exchange, games, breakfast in the morning, watermelon in the afternoon and free shuttles to the beach. Still, the family was hoping for a cabana on the beach so we checked in for one night and caught a taxi to the beach.
The beach at Tulum was like Playa del Carmen but much less populated. Though lured by the water, we set out along the beach to check out cabanas for rent. As we traveled along the beach we found several types of coral, the pudgy white coral, the delicate fan coral, and conch shells. Outside of one complex, I hailed a woman who had just emerged from a dive shop and launched into my standard inquiry about available cabanas for rent. She initially answered me in Spanish and then suavely segued into English, guessing we were Americans. I was so surprised! We began talking. She was very intrigued about our trek as she had had a similar experience as a child, traveling abroad with her mother and brother and now was living in Tulum after setting off on an expedition a year ago. She was from Canada and had intended to trek through Central America but when she arrived in Tulum, she became smitten with diving and the endless reefs teeming with aquatic life and never left. She now works at the dive shop and lives locally (for the first seven months she lived on a palapa on the beach for $7 per night). She called her boss, Fernando, the owner of the dive shop, to ask him if he would be willing to rent his house on the beach, further down the spit. He was and came to pick us up in his truck to see the house. On our way to the house, the paved road ended and we experienced the thrill of some serious potholes. In these conditions, there are no lanes; you just create your own path and others follow. If someone is coming in the opposite direction, you accommodate them in whatever manner makes sense, not necessarily driving on the right side of the road!! Anyway, we made it out to his beach bungalow, which was really cool. It was an open stucco structure in the style of Swiss Family Robinson with trees growing out of several sections of the house, and a loft that overlooked the ocean. The house had its own beach and was next to a small hotel with cabanas and other private residences. It had a kitchen, bathroom and several bedrooms. He had installed solar panels for limited electricity and a well supplied the bath and kitchen water. The stove was powered by a gas tank. He said he would supply a bottle of drinking water and ice for the cooler so we could keep some food refrigerated. All for $50 US dollars! I was sold but there was still some interest in finding our own cabana on the beach so we said we would call him that night. He drove us back into town and we hit the beach.
That night we ate at a restaurant right on the beach in our bathing suits. I had a wonderful fish dish with garlic sauce, Steve had ceviche (a cold dish of fish, onion, tomato, and cilantro marinated in lemon and lime), and Peter and Paul enjoyed their standard Mexican fare—chicken tacos and enchiladas. We were absolutely enjoying our meal when all of sudden out of seemingly nowhere a deluge began. We were sitting near the side of the large palapa when we began to get seriously wet as the wind picked up and it began to rain “diagonally” as Paul describes it. So we moved to a table in the center of the palapa. Within minutes of the rain stopping, a plague of mosquitoes descended upon us. The waiter quickly arrived with insect repellant for us and even a table of locals who were also getting eaten alive. After that little interruption, we resumed our meal and by the time we caught a taxi to return to our hostel in town, it was once again a balmy, blissful night!
The next morning, which was Friday, July 15, we were ready for our breakfast with other fellow hostellers. (Rancho Tranquillo, means Tranquil Ranch, though I must say the night had been anything but tranquil because of the steady stream of cars that trundled along the bumpy road outside the hostel. Tomorrow night, I’ll wear my ear plugs and eye pad.) The couple in the cabana next to us was getting ready to leave. I asked them where they were headed and that’s when I first heard of the BIG news, i.e. the class 5 hurricane headed in our direction!!! Yes, my eyes widened and my senses switched to full alert! Apparently the hurricane was supposed to hit the coast somewhere between Tulum and Cancun. For those of you who know me, I went into my information-gathering mode. I began talking to everyone, fellow travelers, the managers of the hostel, including my friend Daniel, from Olympia, Washington, who headed south a year ago, utterly disgusted with the course of US politics, and, like Amanda of the dive shop, was also seduced by the natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere of Tulum, and remained. Daniel was a great source of information; he had been monitoring the hurricane closely in order to keep guests up-to-date. He definitely advised against staying at Fernando’s house on the beach!!! (Ironically, Steve had been trying to reach Fernando to negotiate five days at the house, but had not been able to successfully place the call! AS A POST NOTE: Fernando´s house ended up being directly on the path of the hurricane!!!) And, though the second floor of the hostel could serve as a shelter, he advised us to consider leaving before the storm hit. He did think, however, that we could wait until Sunday morning to head south or wast and he said he would update us that evening. Reassured, we headed to the beach. (You just can’t get enough of beach time and I am still decompressing, after all!!!)
You can see the grand ruins of Tulum from the main beach so Paul and I fashioned our sand castle after these structures, several thousands of years old. According to historical references, the Mayan civilization began as early as 2,000 BC, while the indigenous people migrated to this geographical region from Siberia possibly up to 60,000 BC, the last ice age.
While standing in line at the bank, we discovered the town park where local families and hordes of children congregate when their work is done around 5 or 6 p.m. to play futbol (soccer), the sport of preference for the rest of the world, as well as basketball and in general promenade around the town square. We planned to come back another evening but the hurricane ended up curtailing our plans for Tulum (read on!).
I enjoyed talking to my friend Oliva, the wife of the other manager at Rancho Tranquillo, and her 4-year-old son, Johnny. Johnny was impressed with the long hair of some of the male guests at the hostel. He was shy but he loved to show me his various modes of transportation, including his scooter and the stationery bike!!! Oliva and I talked while I helped her hang laundry one morning. She told me about the mystery of the blonde-haired, fair-skinned young boy who scampered around the premises. He was the son of a woman whose husband was in the US. She had two older sons as well; they both spoke English and Spanish but the youngest only spoke English, though he had only lived in Mexico. He and Johnny couldn’t communicate! We both found that very odd. Oliva and family were from central Mexico but found that that they could make a better living in the Yucatan where according to Daniel a middle class is emerging and families once relegated to abject poverty can now achieve a better standard of living.
That night we ate a wonderful BBQ at the Weary Traveler (for about $3/person) and logged on to the cyber café to check email, monitor the hurricane and do some minimal web updates.
July 15, 2005
Bienvenidos! We made it to Mexico! It was amazing to see the terrain of the Yucatan peninsula as we flew into Cancun. It was literally covered in dense low-lying jungle. As we were to learn, beneath this jungle cover is an extensive network of limestone channels, the main source of fresh water for this region. As a result, much of the water has a sulfur smell and leaves a residue of iron. But in all the places we visited in this region that generates the most tourism in all of Mexico, we had a ready source of purified drinking water.
We arrived in Cancun and immediately headed to Playa del Carmen, further south on the YucatanPeninsula. When Steve visited this town 20 years ago, it was a mere fishing village with a fantastic beach; now it’s a bustling tourist town, the fastest growing town in Mexico, and actually quite cosmopolitan. As we walked along the esplanade in the center of town, cooled by evening sea breezes, we were surrounded by throngs of people from around the world, speaking many different languages—French, Italian, and German, along with plenty of English and Spanish. Most of the people who work in this district speak English, but I was eager to practice my Spanish, and although it’s pretty rusty, my pronunciation is pretty accurate, thanks to my Portuguese background, and I have become the family’s main interpreter. Peter was surprised that after taking two years of Spanish at SpencerButteMiddle School that he wasn’t instantly fluent, and it’s hard to acquire conversational Spanish unless you’re immersed in the culture. So here we are, immersed in the culture and we’re fumbling along in our communication. Perhaps our most gratifying communication breakthrough was our search for the malaria medication, Chloroquine. We had already left our hotel in Playa de Carmen and had set off to find the medication at a local pharmacy with backpacks on our back and an ambient temperature of 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. We were bathed in sweat and feeling pretty miserable, especially as the first two pharmacies did not yield the necessary medication; in fact, they didn’t even seem to understand what we were talking about. They kept trying to give me allergy medicine, as I would supplement my verbal communication with pantomimes of mosquitoes biting my skin and the concomitant itching! At the third pharmacy, I persisted in my efforts to communicate as I was certain that local farmacias must carry this drug for tourists venturing to other parts of Mexico in which malaria is an issue. After the woman at the counter gave me the standard reply I had received hitherto, another employee, bless her heart, worked with me. I showed her the drug’s name and the manufacturer. We looked up the medication by its manufacturer and lo and behold, found it (it was spelled slightly different in Spanish) and they had it! We had successfully acquired this important medication and took our first dose in preparation for heading into Belize next week.
The water at Playa del Carmen is an absolutely clear aquamarine and I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to folic in the gentle waves after sweating profusely for much of the day. Any activity during the middle of the day would leave us utterly drenched in sweat (and this is their winter!). We didn’t need any toys just the waves and each other and the blessedly refreshing Caribbean Sea and accompanying trade winds. You really just don’t want to get out and you just want the waves to wash over your head over and over again! Aah, how refreshing!
One evening as we ate at a restaurant along the esplanade and were enjoying the Caribbean night, I was utterly ashamed by the behavior of a group of Americans at a table next to us. As part of the entertainment, the waiters served the drinks on top of their heads. When they served our drinks, I heard one of them drunkenly comment with a derogatory sneer, “Oh, yea, those Mayans have such flat heads!” I was so uncomfortable, I asked to change tables, which the waiters gladly accommodated and I was sure to state my opinion of these uncouth compatriots in my broken but emphatic Spanish!
July 10, 2005
Our journey begins in Eugene, Oregon, as we scurried to say goodbye to friends and prepare to leave for one whole year, a task of monumental emotional and logistical proportions! The mere one week from the time I finished work and left my job at the City of Eugene until we left the following Friday was a blur of concentrated activities, punctuated by farewell gatherings, full of blessing and encouragement. Though my personality tends to tip towards the super-excitable in stressful situations, I found myself relatively calm and able to pause and intersect with the beautiful people on my path. These included so many—Aubrey and Beth, two of the women who are renting our house and began to live with us that last week, Becky and Joe Millon, at whose home Peter and Paul spent several nights as Steve and I focused on the task at hand and who drove us to the bus terminal with a care package overflowing with scrumptious munchies for the 20 hour bus drive ahead, Jim and Kirstin Nusser, who hosted a farewell potluck for us at their home on Saturday, July 2, and all those who attended that lovely, heart-felt gathering, Ma’Carry and Jim Cairo and all our friends from the old neighborhood, who invited us to the neighborhood’s annual 4th of July potluck, Jenica and Ben Cogdill, who delivered our iodine tablets a couple of days before we left, and Carrie Peterson, who arrived at the bus terminal just before we left with another care package for the road and more well wishes from my colleagues at Parks and Open Space. We experienced an outpouring of love and support as we prepared for this endeavor, and I know this sustained me during the frenzy of the last weeks before we left and I know it will continue to sustain us as we embark on the journey.
I’m not sure where this fits in but I must tell this pre-trip tale because it seems somehow connected. As many of you know, I have suffered considerable anxiety over safety concerns about this trip. Well, on the evening of the 4th of July, Steve and I were suddenly besieged with a craving for popcorn (!) so we decided to take a walk to Albertson’s. We often take evening walks in our neighborhood though admittedly not often to Albertson’s at night. Nevertheless, there had been considerable activity on the streets with all the 4th of July fireworks festivities, Peter and Paul were spending the night at Kyle’s house, and we ventured out for a brisk walk in the cool of the evening. A runner passed us as we merged on to the running path at Westmoreland and we continued along the perimeter of the park on this path without incident. When we arrived at the pedestrian bridge over 18th Avenue, a young guy, probably no more than 17 or 18, was walking alone several yards behind us, We had just passed the precipice of the bridge and were descending towards Albertson’s, when I stopped to check my sandal. Suddenly, Steve collapsed and grasped his leg. He was bleeding profusely from his left shin. My first thought was that he had stepped on an undetonated firework or that a firework had been hurled at him from behind. The only other person on the bridge was the young man who was behind us and I immediately looked back at him. Ironically, though Steve was writhing in pain, he didn’t approach us nor ask what was wrong. He seemed altered, dazed and I noticed his left hand was concealed by a sweat shirt draped over it. In the meantime Steve had sat down along the side of the bridge. I could see one lone Albertson’s employee on break outside the store and knew I wanted to get Steve off the bridge to clean and examine his wound. The suspicious young man finally approached us, somewhat warily, and offered us his cell phone. Instinctively, I didn’t trust him and definitely didn’t want to know what was in his left hand and said no thank you and that I wanted to get my husband down to Albertson’s to clean his leg. I encouraged Steve up and we limped down the hill to the store. As we walked down the hill, I kept an eye on the kid, who continued to walk north on the path. I deposited Steve on some bags of soil outside Albertson’s next to the employee on break and ran into the store for paper towels. In the meantime, the employee ran in to activate other employees. One of the Albertson’s employees had been in nursing school and was extremely skillful and efficient. As she cleaned the wound and stopped the bleeding, we began to realize that it appeared to be a bullet wound of some sort. Steve thought it was a bee-bee gun and said he even heard the whirr of the discharge before he was hit. A wonderful young man from Ghana, Africa, who was shopping for groceries, expressed concern and gave us a lift home. It turns out he is part of the American English Institute, the same program with which all of the students who have lived with us over the years have been affiliated, and he knew one of our friends from the program. Concerned that there might be something still lodged in his leg, we went to the emergency room. As we waited to be seen, a police officer took our report and hung out with us to get the results of the examination. The X-ray revealed that there was indeed a bullet lodged in Steve’s leg and another hour later after rooting around the area around the bullet’s entry point, the doctor extracted an impacted pellet bullet! Steve had been shot by a pellet gun, not a bee-bee gun. We hobbled home at in the morning, pondering the significance of this experience. What is safety and how do we ensure it? Is it possible to ensure it? Certainly, however, it reinforced that we will take common-sense precautions, like avoiding walks at at night in unfamiliar places abroad.
The incident has had further repercussions. On the way down to LA, Steve contracted edema in his leg and then once we got to Mexico the area around the wound became discolored which did eventually resolve. We’re not sure the edema was related to the injury but we did have it checked out before we left, thanks to the incredibly generous hospitality of Bill Clark III, a dear friend from Kwajalein who treated us with style for the 3 days we were in LA before departing for the Yucatan, including rescuing us from LAX when we missed our original flight on Monday, July11. Yes, believe it or not, we missed our flight. We think we could have made it but apparently with the new security measures, they have a strict cut-off; if you’re not checked in ½ hour before the flight leaves, they absolutely will not let you through security. So, although Peter wanted to reenact Tom Hank’s experience in “Terminal,” we called Bill Clark and spent one more night with him. The next day, anxious to get to Mexico, we were sure to make it with time to spare.