I love airports. I know, I’m a little weird that way. Most people I know dread them. They even avoid faraway trips because of the added airport time it requires. The long line ups, the delays, the gates with too few seats, and the sinful price of a quick meal. I get it, but I’m still a fan – because if I’m at the airport, I get to go somewhere. And that’s always worth a bit of suffering in my books.
You know how when you’re not allowed to have something, you want it even more? What is that? Our inner spoiled brat, our lack of willpower, or our desire for control? I’m guilty of all three of those. So when just over a year ago my doctor grounded me, I was a wretched lump of misery. My poor health had tethered me – I had been warned not to wander off, not be foolish, nor engage in reckless behaviour. Some of my favourite things. However, I had a wee time bomb inside and I needed to tread lightly. For once, I actually listened to someone’s advice.
Thus ensued months of generally feeling like hell and doing my best impression of a pouty couch lump while the monsters inside were poked, proded and eventually exorcised. At the same time, I decided to turn my life completely sideways and flee everything I knew and loved to take a new gig on the other side of the country – because if I’m going to shake things up, might as well go all the way. Go big or go home, right?
Well, it all turned out ok. Six months post surgery and my body and I are on the same team again. I’ve settled into my new job, and I’m starting to build a new life out on the west coast (which is gorgeous by the way, you must visit!). And the very best part – I can put my travelling shoes on again! I like Dodge and all, but sometimes I’ve just got to get the hell out of it. It’s in my wiring.
I can’t always explain my travel choices – something in my guts just says ‘hey, let’s go here!’ and off I go. This time, the word ‘Guatemala’ had kept skipping through my mind – random conversations, opening a photobook to an arbitrary page showing Mayan ruins, and Google’s flight suggestions were all ganging up on me. So, Guatemala climbed up to the top of my list. I also have a friend to who annually basks on a tropical island in next-door Belize, and I’ve been threatening to crash his vacations for years. The stars were lining up.
Sliding into my travelling shoes while heaving my over-loaded pack onto my back felt as good as buttoning up a pair of skinny jeans after months of dieting. (Though, after a year of couch-lumping, my skinny jeans and I aren’t yet on speaking terms.) This little jaunt was going to take a bit of effort – it was supposed to take three flights to get to Guatemala City. Lots of lining up, being robbed by airport vendors, and trying to use those teeny airplane bathrooms with a bit of grace. It got a little bit interesting though, when during our last leg of the last flight the pilot’s voice announced, “Well folks, we were trying to get you into Guatemala City, but a volcano has erupted nearby. We’ll be heading to El Salvador instead.”
Secretly I was thrilled. Not that I had a burning desire to see El Salvador – but simply being thrown at the feet of the travel gods to have them do as they please with me – this is exactly what I needed. My travel tether had finally snapped. I was at the whim of the universe, floating along from one unfamiliar situation to the next. This is travel for me – getting swallowed up in the unknown, smacked in the face with new smells, falling in love with new flavours, laughing with strangers until they become friends. Central America was gonna be good.
Eventually I ended up in Guatemala. There isn’t a word colourful enough to describe Guatemala. Vibrant isn’t big enough, for there are more colours than Crayola knows about. I think for me it just felt real, raw, and genuine. Some places I’ve traveled to, you feel like they’ve just swept everything under the rug hoping the guests won’t notice. Guatemala didn’t bother with that. Not that they have anything to hide, you just know your place. “Stand here, wait there, it costs this much.” There’s very little guess work involved, you just do what you’re told. People are kind, quick to smile, and willing to endure your ludicrous charades when your Spanish fails miserably.
I stayed in Flores, a wee island on Lake Peten in the middle of the country. Cobblestone streets, colourful alleyways, drool inducing street food each night, and worthy of days of aimless wandering. It’s also a gateway to Tikal – tours to the nearby Mayan ruins are affordable and easy to find. A word to the wise… even if you do book the 4:30am tour, they just might show up at 3:15am to collect you for the ungodly earlier tour – despite your grumbling for an extra hour of sleep. Charades don’t work here, just get in the van.
From Flores, Belize is an easy bus ride away. If you’re unlucky like me, the bus will leave 2.5 hours later than you’re told. If you’re lucky like me, it’ll be cushy, air conditioned and the same price as the ratty cramped bus you were supposed to take. They’ll get you across the border, where border guards will be grumpy and you will sweat your arse off in the line up. But in exchange for your patience you get another stamp in that little book.
Belize is much more my speed. The bus spits you out at the ferry terminal where people quickly point you in the right direction and lend a hand with your bag. In mere moments I not only had a water taxi ticket, but an icy cold beer and a plate of jerk chicken. I immediately had a crush on Belize.
A quick boat ride across to Caye Caulker and my crush quickly evolved into a full blown love affair. When I connected with my friend, he had some very important guidelines that I believe everyone on the island is greeted with. “Welcome to Caye Caulker. Time doesn’t count here and you can do whatever the fuck you want.” And, it’s entirely true – Caye Caulker is a beautiful collection of people, from hippies to hipsters, young travellers to retired executives, jocks to bookworms – this place accepts them all. Nap, drink, dance or feast, no one cares.
A few things to do on Caye Calker – first up, get yourself a bike. I rented mine from the shop that houses the Western Union, wherever that is… it’s a small island, you’ll find it. My bike was intent on my demise – it didn’t help that I also had a concussion and no sense of balance. I fell off within moments – but after a few blender drinks, I was riding with impeccable style. This is the best way to explore the island, a bike will get you anywhere you need to be.
Next – eat everything you can get your mouth on. The streets are lined with delicious, fresh food. You have to plan it right – the place you went for breakfast won’t be open for dinner, allowing you to spread your food love around the island. The fresh grilled kabobs will leave your mouth shouting in absolute joyful rapture. My travelling companion begged me not to spill the rice and beans on what I suspect is one of the islands best secrets. Out of respect for our decade-long friendship I’ll implore you not to sleuth out the Little Kitchen for their conch fritters. Especially not with a dash of hot sauce.
Talk to everyone – it seems they’ve all come for the party and were just waiting on your arrival – you’re greeted like a long lost friend, asked to dance the moment you sit down, and pay no mind when the cook sits at your table and lights up a giant spliff. My first night, I ended up at the sports bar where there was a costume party – because apparently people travel with their Cleopatra costumes. Don’t you?
Become one with the wildlife. I had a mad crush on the trio of iguanas that lived under my cabin. I aptly named them Small, Medium and Large. They never got used to me and Large had a habit of bobbing his head up and down in an attempt at dominance. Or maybe he just had a song trapped in his head. The reef that protects the island from strong ocean waves is teeming with coral and critters. Barracudas are simply menacing as they swim up to you and bare their jagged and horrifying razor teeth. I even swam with sharks, a tremendous feat as I regularly have Jaws related nightmares. And the manta rays just look like they’re having way too much fun. The gang at French Angel Expeditions were wonderful guides.
After a few days of pure island nonsense, it was time to head home. I didn’t mind too much – sometimes the airport home can be ok too. It’s an opportunity to plot out my next trip while I wait in line – this gal has her travel mojo back!