Monthly Archives: May 2014

Keep Calm

My “dreamy” flight to Heathrow was the start of a week that was supposed to have been a relaxing, peaceful visit to my best friend Allison – pregnant with twins- and her family in the town of Baldock, England. Instead, a number of events occurred which cast a pall of stress over what has otherwise been a fun week.

1. Upon my arrival at Heathrow, I headed to an ATM to get out some British pounds. The first ATM didn’t accept my card. This is not too unusual; sometimes I have to go to several machines to find a company that will work for my bank card. (In Peru in 2008, it took me almost five days for this to work). But then the second machine didn’t work either. I tried five ATMs in all, and none would accept my card. At first, I was irritated, thinking that my bank had somehow disregarded the travel notice that I had placed on my account. I exchanged some emergency US cash and made it to Baldock. When I called my bank, I learned that my card had been frozen because someone had tried to take the equivalent of $400 in Columbian pesos using my card number in Colombia. Um, not me. Crap. Looking back, I am 99% sure that the fraud occurred at an ATM in Antigua that had been tampered with. Luckily, the thief was not able to access my funds (see, those travel alerts do work!). But then, I needed to complete the process of authorizing a new debit card to be sent to me. I can’t continue to travel without access to my cash! Thank God that I would be spending the next week with my friends here in England and hadn’t planned on many cash-requiring activities. I arranged to have a new card expedited to Baldock.

2. Except my expedited card took its time getting to Baldock. Months ago, I had booked a flight from London to Biarritz, France, which was one of the easiest ways of getting to the town which begins the Camino. My flight was scheduled for about noon on Thursday, May 8, a week after my arrival in the UK. On Wednesday afternoon, I was sweating bullets because my card was nowhere to be found. I finally called and had my shipment tracked: my card would not be arriving that day. Which means that I couldn’t fly out as planned. That night was spent trying to rebook flights and hotels, which was stressful and expensive. Apparently high season has already started (I had read that this wasn’t until June and July), so finding a last-minute room in town for two nights without spending an arm and a leg was not easy. Grrr.

3. Just when I thought that my problems were over, I was taking my jacket off while at a coffee shop with my friend’s daughter and mother-in-law. I noticed a scattering of white flakes on my sleeves. (No, not dandruff!) I inspected my rain jacket to find that the interior waterproof lining was disintegrating. Not what you want to see when you are scheduled to start a 5-week trek across Spain in probably the rainiest season of the year. Panic.
So the plan is to buy a new rainjacket (I have tracked down Marmot retailers in London) this afternoon.

And soon, everything will be all better. For now, I will have to


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Oo-ooh, Dreeeeeam-lin-er…

“I have just closed my eyes aga-ain,
Climbed aboard the Dreamliner pla-ane…”

With apologies to Gary Wright for totally bastardizing his lyrics*, this is what was going through my head as I boarded my connecting flight from Houston to London Heathrow last Wednesday. This was to be my first flight on one of United’s new fleet of Dreamliners.

And as a relatively frequent traveler, I was GEEKING OUT.

Not only was this flight completely inexpensive for me (I was able to book it with United air miles; meaning that I only paid taxes and then an upgrade fee to get extra legroom- totally worthwhile for a 9+ hour flight), but it was probably the most comfortable flight I’ve ever taken. This is the first time I have actually gotten my camera out on a plane to take photos… of the plane.

It’s a bit difficult to see it here, but there was very pleasant ambient lighting that changed during the flight instead of the on-or-off lighting of most airplanes. It is supposed to help diminish jet lag by helping your internal clock adapt to the time change. I kinda felt like I was on a spaceship.

I swear that this is just a pretty sunset and that United is not compensating me for this (although, United, if that’s your sorta thing, ;), have your people call my people)

Personal entertainment system with USB chargers

She is dimming her window!!!

I did a bit of research after I booked this flight (to be honest, I had never heard of a Dreamliner before the name showed up on the flight itinerary), so I knew about some of the features of the plane. What really made this flight amazing for me was the air quality. Even though I love to travel, I kind of hate the “being on a plane” part. Planes are cramped and uncomfortable, and the second you board, you get that disgusting trifecta of eardrum popping, engine whine, and stale air funk that accompanies a pressurized cabin. This plane touts its HEPA air filters and pressurization system that is supposed to better mimic normal air pressure on the ground… and maybe this was all psychological, but I actually felt a difference. I didn’t land at Heathrow with that typical “I just had three years of my life sucked away by a nine-hour flight” feeling. I felt good. I was also very pleased that I was able to squeeze in Austenland, American Hustle, dinner, and a 5-hour overnight sleep. Woo-hoo!

So is someone paying me to say these awesome things about the Dreamliner? No. Would I fly with a Dreamliner again? Absolutely.

*”Dream Weaver,” Gary Wright

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What I’ll miss (about Central America)

My travels in Central America began on March 1, 2014. When I planned this leg of the journey, I worried that two months might be too long a time to travel mostly by myself here.

Now I realize that it wasn’t nearly enough.

There are about a million and one things that I will miss about Central America (Honduras and Guatemala in particular). I supposed you could roughly categorize them, so I will attempt to do so here.

First, because I am a human vacuum cleaner, I will miss the food.

1. Frijoles
Beans, beans, the magical fruit. While I did not have any problems like those indicated in the popular rhyme, I *did* eat them with almost every meal. Honorable mention to any type of desayuno tipico, or typical breakfast. These vary from country to country, but they usually include beans, eggs, and tortillas. And fried plantains if you’re lucky that day.

Guatemalan desayuno tipico. I could seriously swim in those beans.

2. Chuchitos
We have already discussed my love for chuchitos.
3. Licuados
4. Guatemalan coffee (aka ridiculously good and ridiculously inexpensive cappuccinos)

Handcrafted by my buddies at Y Tu Piña También in Antigua
5. Guacamole
Another food product that I could swim in.

Other non-food things that I will miss:

1. Views like this on a regular basis:


2. Latin-American Spanish
I have worked SO HARD to get to a point where I can speak this. And I like the way it sounds. (Do you know what my favorite Guatemalan Spanish word is? Poporopos. It means “popcorn.” See? Isn’t that awesome?) And within a few days,I will be in London speaking English, and then within a week, I will be in Spain, and the Spanish there is from another universe: different words, different sound (all those “corathons” and “Lorenthos“), and a faster speed. So it makes me a little sad.

3. People that I’ve met along the way
I know that I’ve already mentioned a ton of people in previous posts, and I know that it goes without saying that I will miss them, but here are some more:

Megan, on what we jokingly called our “non-romantic friend date” when we splurged on a nice dinner in Antigua

Chicki (and Roberto, not pictured) from Y Tu Piña También, my favorite cafe in Antigua

4. Affordability
A private room for $15. A haircut for $5. A nice meal for $7. When I was researching the cost of hotel rooms in France for May, I cried a little inside.

5. Bachata, bachata everywhere!
Every single song ever released by Romeo Santos playing on a continuous loop for two consecutive months. Restaurants, radio, bars, while driving in shuttles and cars. I love it. (Except for Drake’s rap interlude during the song “Odio.” Why doesn’t he just belch in the middle of the song? It would have about the same effect on me).

6. The animals
Yes, you read that correctly. For anyone who does not know me well, I am NOT an animal person. I have never owned – nor have ever wanted- a pet. I enjoy the idea of animals, but more so in an “Oh, hai sweet doggy, how – no, you need to stay over there” sort of way. Some of this has to do with allergies. But sometimes I really just don’t want an animal jumping on me.

A few little guys have changed my mind. (OK, not about the jumping part or the sneezing part, but these two were really sweet).

The cat at Cafe Cristalina’s in San Pedro had just had two kittens, who often hid in the wall between the sitting area and the kitchen. Maybe she was just a new mom who needed a break, but she just hopped right up and fell asleep.

Maggie, who lived with my homestay family in Antigua. Every day, she would jump up next to me (not on me. Thank you, Maggie) and forcibly nuzzle her head beneath my arm so that I’d have no choice but to hug her. She dares you not to fall in love with her.

Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Things I will NOT miss upon leaving Central America:
1. Not being able to drink tap water or open my mouth in the shower
2. Not being able to flush toilet paper
3. The smell of trash burning
4. “Guatemalan time.” I’m definitely not the most prompt person in the world, but this is ridiculous sometimes
5. Not going out alone after dark, even to a cafe, in certain cities. (I was so lucky that San Pedro did not fall into this category). This was a tough one for me. I consider myself to be a very independent person. I travel alone. At home, I go out by myself to the movies or dinner or concerts all the time. Even though I love to be social and do things with friends, I really like to be alone sometimes. So it was frustrating for me to visit places where I *could* have gone out alone, but then maybe it was not the greatest idea for me to walk back at 10pm by myself. Or the tuk-tuks or cabs weren’t really so easy to find at that time, and I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere. It makes me really appreciate the relatively safe environments I have lived in in the U.S.

Despite this… I really don’t want to leave! But England and then the Camino await, so here I go. 😦 / 🙂 ?

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On my last day in Guatemala, I took a group trip to climb a nearby active volcano, Pacaya. Depending upon the recent activity at the peak, sometimes it’s even possible to roast marshmallows on top.

A shuttle picked me up at 6am across the street from my house. I lucked out and was the first passenger of the morning, so I quickly chose to sit in the front passenger seat. Leg space is at a premium in shuttles, and we had a full house.

There’s really not much to explain. We hiked up a volcano. It wasn’t a difficult hike, taking under one and a half hours, but it was definitely worth it. We had several wild dogs accompanying us on the way up and down, mostly because they understand that hikers bring food with them and that food is good. There were also a large number of local guides bringing “emergency” horses up the trails in case people weren’t able to make it the whole way, which I took as a bit of a diss to our hiking ability! (No one needed them). I also met two women from Innsbruck, Austria; we spoke most of the way up only in Spanish. I felt kind of proud to be able to have a long conversation in a mutual language that was not the primary language for any of us. (I know that this is not a big accomplishment – Europeans, for example, do this ALL THE TIME- but it was a nice reminder of how much I had actually learned in four weeks of classes). Niki and Petra made the hike a lot more fun, and I hope to be able to meet up with them in Austria later this summer.

We returned to Antigua, sweaty but happy, just after noon. It was a good way to spend my last full day in Central America.


View of neighboring volcano Acatenango

There’s Pacaya!




Haht haht haht!!!


Standing in a lava tube, at an unfortunate angle which makes it appear like I have a large dog sprouting from my head. Thanks, photographer! 😦

Lots of doggies waiting for food after our descent

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Common Hope

One of my goals for this sabbatical was to find dental volunteer programs in different parts of the world, both to compare and contrast the countries in terms of cultural norms, health education, and services offered. (I make this sound like some sort of thesis, but it’s really just out of personal interest). I was excited to come across an organization in Antigua, Guatemala called Common Hope (or locally, Familias de Esperanza). In addition to their program of sponsorship for Guatemalan children, they have developed an entire system of affiliation between families, local schools, neighborhoods, and their main campus in Antigua, which among other services, has a dental clinic. I arranged to volunteer with Common Hope for one week, both in their main clinic and in a rural satellite clinic.

On my first day, I was given an orientation tour. Lauren met me in the town square, where we took a van to a local neighborhood to see some of the school programs that have been started and also to visit the home of one the participating families. Like Habitat for Humanity in the U.S., CH encourages participants to pay for new homes through “sweat equity.” They also work with schools to develop basic rules for behavior for the young schoolchildren. They have found a noticeable difference in school “readiness” between children who participate in CH programs and those who don’t. The goal is to increase the chances that the children will be successful and stay in school. They try to accomplish this, Lauren said, by eliminating many common obstacles like problems with transportation and obtaining school supplies. What impressed me most was that Lauren stressed that this is not just “charity”: CH tries to make their system sustainable not by just giving money and services away, but by trying to incorporate accountability from all the participants so they can eventually live and work independently. (Kind of like, “Teach a man to fish….”)


20140507-095858.jpg Scenes from our school visit

The facilities at Familias de Esperanza are absolutely gorgeous with a hacienda-style design. There are several wings with volunteer quarters and a common area, a kitchen and cafeteria where we would eat lunch every day, a pharmacy, medical clinic, dental clinic, offices, and workshop. It was a lovely place to work!



Since the clinic was located just outside of town, I either had to take a local chicken bus there (which costs 1.5Q, or less than $.20) or a tuk-tuk for 15-20Q. My first day, I boarded a chicken bus – the first available ride home- only to discover that there were no empty seats. Note to self: I am too tall to stand on chicken buses. The (mercifully short) ride was spent half-standing, half squatting awkwardly in the aisle while holding the overhead railing in a death grip, trying not to hit my head on the ceiling while the bus barreled down the cobblestone road and over the ubiquitous speed bumps.

The next day, I took a tuk-tuk!

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I did cleanings in the Familias de Esperanza clinic. (We had decided to limit the offered procedures to cleanings because of the obvious logistical problem of carrying other dental equipment and materials in my lone backpack for two months in hot weather!) Another Canadian volunteer named Lynne helped to organize the patient list, Eugenia would stop by to help me with any instrument or autoclave issues, and my awesome translator Chris cheerfully provided the (thrilling, I’m sure) service of assisting with dental cleanings.

The volunteers’ common area


Chris also wears awesomely weird t-shirts 🙂

On Tuesday and Thursday, I drove with Lesbia, a social worker, to a rural clinic in a very poor village called San Rafael. (I love the fact that we just happened to drive past an erupting volcano on the way to work! I could see plumes of ash in the distance). All of the patients here wore traditional dress. One of the volunteer groups, a team of pre-med students from Louisiana, was providing the services of head washing (anti-lice treatments were needed for many of the patients) and foot washing (some of the patients have improper or no footwear to wear on the dirt roads and so have cuts and sores; the team would wash and treat their feet and then distribute flip-flops and “Crocs.”) While Lesbia and the group of social workers led activities for the families, a medical team saw patients in their clinic, and my translator/assistant Micah and I did extractions and cleanings in the dental operatory.

The main road in San Rafael


Appointment fees: one US dollar is worth about 7.6 quetzales


That’s me!


Micah and I, looking tough

“Hey, I have an idea….”

Yes, I am a big girl.

I was glad to be able to help out with such a great organization. To find out more about Common Hope/Familias de Esperanza and their sponsorship programs, go to

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…and hello to Antigua

The trip to Antigua on Holy Saturday took quite a bit longer than my “road trip” a week earlier. Due to the influx of tourists to all of the pueblos around Lake Atitlán and Antigua, the traffic situation was ridiculous. Several tour agencies in Panajachel combined forces and hired a huge 25-person shuttle rather than the typical minivan-style coaches. I was lucky enough to get a seat for both me and my backpack towards the back of the shuttle. We took an alternate route out of Pana and everything seemed to be going well… until we hit the highway about half an hour outside Antigua. Stretched in front of us as far as the eye could see was a line of bumper-to-bumper traffic along our side of the four-lane highway, which was barely moving. At this rate, getting to Antigua could take hours.

This is when our driver made an executive decision. Without a word, he calmly pulled into the oncoming lane of traffic and casually bypassed about two miles’ worth of traffic by driving on the wrong side of the road. There were few cars coming in our direction, but that didn’t stop us from gaping, wide-eyed and incredulous, at the sheer ballsiness of our driver. At the next break in the median, he easily veered back into the line of traffic like nothing had ever happened. Half the shuttle erupted in nervous laughter; the other half burst into a round of applause. “Propinas, por favor,” (“Tips, please”), the driver joked.
Cutting in line, Guatemala-style

We arrived in town after sundown. Walking alone at night on the outskirts of Antigua is maybe not the best idea, but I was able to find my homestay while walking with a woman who owned a local bakery. I would be staying the next 10 days with the Rosales family: Doñas Natalia, Rosalinda, Sara, Irma, and their adorable dog, Maggie.
At the kitchen table, where I shared three meals a day with my family

I had a spacious private room in the house with my own bathroom. The rooms were on the second floor and opened to a sitting area that had a view of the surrounding hills. It was a beautiful place to stay, especially with the sun rising over the mountains in the morning. Early on one of the first mornings, I heard a rumbling noise which I assumed to be a truck passing by. I heard one of the women downstairs exclaim, “¡El volcan!” Nearby Fuego was erupting at the time of my visit, some distance away from town. Can’t say I’ve ever woken up to the sound of a volcano before!

On Sunday morning, which was Easter, I went to Mass at the nearby Iglesia San Francisco and then got some breakfast. There were processions that day, too, but to be honest, I was getting a bit processioned-out and just caught the tail end of it as the anda re-entered the church in the early evening. There were huge crowds, firecrackers, and the obligatory Dora and Minion balloon vendors. Possibly the strangest thing was the presence of an emcee on a microphone who would shout what sounded like an Easter play-by-play as the procession neared the church doors: “¡Jesus ha resucitado! ¡Aleluia!” And the crowd would cheer and applaud. It kinda felt like a sporting event :).

Jesus surfs back into the courtyard of the church

A typical Antigua courtyard

Volcan Agua visible to the south

Later on, I wandered around town, both scoping out a place to eat dinner (meals are not included with the homestay on Sundays) and checking for any pubs that might be showing Game of Thrones. I know, I know, pathetic, but I never would have cared had I not gotten a taste of Season 4 at the Alegre Pub. I did not find Game of Thrones at Cafe Sky; however, I did find Samir, a French traveler whom I had met in San Pedro. He and his friend Maria invited me to join them for dinner. The views from the roof deck of the cafe were breathtaking. I did not see this beautiful a view for the rest of my time in Guatemala. It was the beginning of the rainy season, so the evenings were turning more and more overcast as the days passed. I’m glad I got the chance to experience this:




I guess Cafe Sky is the place to run into people that you’ve met in San Pedro, because just a few days later, I ran into Sarah and Hani, whom I had seen while watching the Good Friday processions. They were accompanied by new friends Erica and Sam. Both of these American couples are traveling by camper from the US through Latin America. That is, if you could call Skyhorse a camper. Seriously, Sarah and Hani’s vehicle needs to be seen to be believed: Adventures in Skyhorse. Erica and Sam also have a ton of great stories from camping and exploring in Mexico at Song of the Road. Even though we had never hung out before, they were fantastic and hilarious company. Can you see why I never get any work done on my blog? 🙂


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Saying goodbye to San Pedro

It’s amazing how quickly you can grow to love a place and think of it as home. As my last week of classes drew to an end, I found myself with a growing pit of dread in my stomach: I was not at all looking forward to saying goodbye to San Pedro. The festivities of Semana Santa provided a bit of a distraction, as did special events like celebrating my teacher Elizabeth’s 21st birthday by going out to dinner:

Elizabeth enjoying Wiener schnitzel at Cafe Atitlán

Our class also took a field trip to local beach after school that Thursday, which involved catching a ride to get there:

The last day of classes was a tad anticlimactic: while the other students finished their lessons that morning, Elizabeth and I had moved our class to the afternoon due to the early Good Friday processions… but by the time school time rolled around after lunch, we were exhausted, hot, and burned out. The town was swamped with tourists (mostly from Latin America), and the heat wave made it difficult to concentrate. I convinced Elizabeth that our last day together would be much better spent enjoying a licuado (smoothie). Sooo much better than attempting to squeeze in another verb tense! 🙂


There was no fun-filled karaoke farewell party, as I had been excitedly planning. My group of friends climbed the stairs of Alegre Pub on Friday night – their normal karaoke night- only to be greeted by horrific dance music, a smoke machine, lasers, and the scantily-clad Brahva girls (picture your typical group of young, attractive beer-or-alcohol spokespeople) dancing up a storm. I guess the pub had tried to up the ante for Semana Santa weekend. We spent the remainder of the night at the decidedly more relaxed Sublime, where we could enjoy the bonfire along the water.

With Max, Lauren, and Paul (who is both completely amazing and potentially insane to be biking from Alaska to South America. As in, on a bicycle. Check out his spectacular website at The Ride South).


The next day, Saturday, was my last in San Pedro. I spent the morning running around: finishing errands, buying a thank-you carrot cake at Cafe Cristalina’s for my homestay family, buying souvenirs, and failing in my final attempt to attend a yoga class in San Pedro. (THANKS FOR THE NOTIFICATION, SAN PEDRO YOGA, THAT YOU NEVER SEEM TO OPEN YOUR DOORS). Part of me knew that I would need to keep busy to avoid thinking about the inevitable: leaving my new family and the people in town that had come to be my neighbors and friends over the last month.

I’ll admit it: the last lunch with my family was very emotional for me. It’s hard to say goodbye to people who have shared their home, their meals, and their lives with you for four weeks. I loved my homestay family, and I hope that I will be able to see them again.


I also bid farewell to many of the other new friends I had made:

Rene, the head of Orbita Spanish School (with Elizabeth)

Josefina, who runs the best licuado stand in San Pedro (also a favorite of Nadine and Miguel!)

I only walked past Manuel’s storefront about fifteen times a day. When he wasn’t busy playing his xylophone, he would always give me a friendly “Buenas.”

When I boarded the lancha to Panajachel for the last time, it was with a heavy heart, which will always fondly remember my time in San Pedro.

Leaving paradise

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Semana Santa at Lake Atitlán

As with my previous post, there is very little than can be accomplished by trying to describe the processions of Holy Week in Guatemala. The following processions occurred on the evening of Holy Thursday and the morning of Good Friday. I hope that this photo essay can do them justice.

Wednesday evening: the town park already decorated with fruit for Holy Week


Does St. Peter remind anyone of the statue of Paul Bunyan in Fargo? Is it the angle? Is that sacrilegious?

Holy Thursday in San Pedro:





These little guys approached me and Lauren in the park and spoke to us about a mile a minute in Spanish while their amused parents looked on. They even gave us flowers for our hair. Such sweethearts.

Good Friday morning in San Pedro:












The last words of Christ




Me, Ludo, and his host “mom”

My buddy Max







Good Friday evening in San Juan:


Another Judas effigy





Running into my teachers: Teresa, Elizabeth, and Celeste

Linda, Domingo, and I



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