Lexington, USA

Sunday, July 30th, 2006

It takes a surprisingly short amount of flight time to get to Kentucky from San Salvador. The three-hour flight to Houston featured a “Breakfast Sandwich” of a sunny-side up egg, beans, cheese, and ham with an overall effect of, well, sort of weird; a monumentally boring movie that should have been interesting about the McCarthy era and radio; and excruciatingly desiccating air conditioning that had me seriously considering putting Vaseline up my nose in an attempt to keep from mummifying. Houston was underwhelming at best: the immigration guy barely raised an eyebrow when we said we’d been out of the country for nine months and the customs guy was utterly unconcerned with how many bottles of Marie Sharp’s habanera sauce I was carrying and just waved us through.

Joshua’s cousin Jeff picked us up from the Lexington airport and we headed to his place to hang out for a couple of days until we could pick up our rental car. This is the first time we’ve been back to the states in nine months and Kentucky is a little extra surreal. The place is really beautiful from the air—it looks like an abstract leaf pattern with light and dark green patches (grass and forest). On the ground, one is struck by the immense clean and neatly dotted freeway. And that all the grass is mowed. Kentucky in the vicinity of Lexington is one vast manicured lawn.

There are also a lot of churches that appear to be able to accommodate more than the actual population available. They have snappy signs to help attract prospective church-goers.

Southside Church of Christ sign. God never turns off his security system

Hip. Serious. Relevant.

A few other things are different since I last remember.

Since when is BP the vanguard of Eco-correct?

In case you can’t read this, it says, “natural, whole care, anticavity and tartar control, plus whitening gel fluoride toothpaste,” CINNAMON CLOVE flavor! Gel! Whitening! AND tartar control!! I nearly jumped out of my own skin in the middle of the whole foods when I spotted this. We’ll be carting no less than ten tubes of this stuff back to El Salvador.

Punta Gorda, Belize (June 9-11)

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

Waterfront Punta Gorda, Belize

We were returning from the wedding loaded down with fifty berjillion pounds of metal boat parts that my parents were saints for hauling to Playa from Arizona for us. Not content to let Joshua do all the carrying, I discovered some free space in my bag and was compelled to buy no less than 20 glass bottles of Marie Sharps hot sauce of varying flavors and intensities, plus chutneys, etc. Normally accustomed to light travel, our revised standards required that we find a hotel within 30 meters of the doorway of whatever bus we just exited; if more than one street had to be crossed or any stairs were involved in this 30 meters, colossal tragedy was declared and general strike threatened. So, after many hours on various busses of dubious shock absorptive and braking power we got to Punta Gorda, the southernmost town (that is easily accessible) in Belize, where one can catch a boat to Puerto Barrias, Guatemala. We decided we needed a day of rest.

Realizing that the main bus station might in fact not be located inside the very hotel we had carefully selected ahead of time (drastic measures for us indeed), we convinced the bus driver to let us off at the cross-street. The Nature’s Way Guest House was reported in our brand new Lonely Planet guidebook as “one of the better budged hotels in Belize.” (Sweet! Sign me up!) We checked in, searched around until we found a strong spot in the floor where we could be fairly certain our bags wouldn’t go crashing through, and headed out into the world to fly freely. Now, I will agree that the Nature’s Way is relatively inexpensive, but ‘one of the best,’ it is not. (I have a long list of constructive criticisms if not downright negative things to say about Lonely Planet guidebooks and this is but one example.) The room was basically functional and utterly charmless (not a crime, I realize) unless you count the Barbie pillowcase on the bunk, the floor was haphazardly swept (flip-flops kept in the ON position), we asked for towels and received the typical cut-in-half mini towel (arguably, another point for the ‘charm’ category for you adventuresome types), one of the toilets didn’t work in the shared bathrooms (but it had a toilet seat, so I guess it’s sort of a wash), and neither shower had enough water in them to produce more than a loud dribble (gaak, inexcusable). One was forced to snuggle up to the flimsy plastic shower wall in an attempt to divert some of the water if you expected to wash (and it was definitely another keep flip-flops ON affair). So, whatever, Lonely Planet and Nature’s Way. Nice location near the water though, not that you got any benefit from the sea breeze because the guest rooms were all in the lee of the wind behind the main house and blocked by dense orchidy foliage (pretty!). The owner and family, of course, are all sweethearts.

We stayed there for the night but upgraded the next day to a very nice place called Saint Charles (his son runs a similarly nice place down the street called Charlson) for about $5 more. This place had actual hotel-style sparkling clean rooms, two fans (!!), private bathroom that functioned just fine, including the shower, and TV with about 90 different channels (kind of fun when you are not used to TV; we watched some cheesy movies). I guess it depends whether you are traveling as a couple or singly and don’t mind sharing a room with other travelers, in which case, perhaps the Nature’s Way is better since you could share information, revel in the backpacker grunge, swap out your Anne Rice for a John Grisham or perhaps VC Andrews, etc.

Punta Gorda, Belize

We spent the first evening wandering about somewhat in a daze after the day’s bus journey and tried some garnachas (similar to tostadas with beans, pickled cabbage/onions, and cheese) from one of the stands near the central triangle park. They were only so-so and left Joshua wanting more dinner. Punta Gorda seems sadly lacking in street food stands but we eventually found ourselves beckoned down a small alley alongside the market where some guys were eating near the water. They turned out to be bus drivers on the Chetumal-PG route and the driver’s uncle. Have I mentioned that people in Belize are friendly? My god it boggles the mind. The food was exceedingly cheap and only so-so but we enjoyed sitting and chatting with the bus drivers about Belize, driving busses, gas prices, tourism, etc.

The next day, we smelled our way down to Sonshine Bakery (on the street next to the water, north of the market area a couple blocks) in hopes of fresh deliciousness but learned that we were a little too early; cinnamon rolls and donuts would not be ready for an hour. Previously dismayed by the coffee scene throughout most of Belize, Punta Gorda surprised us by advertising actual real coffee at no less than two different establishments. We decided to check out The Snack Shop (open 7am), which is run by a born-and-raised Belizian woman of American immigrants; she said she grew up in the bush in southern Belize. She is super friendly and happy to recommend any restaurants, hotels, things to do, etc. in the Punta Gorda area. I believe she also mentioned that she and her husband had a small car they sometimes rented out for the day. The Snack Shop also has a variety of pastries and cakes as well as cooked breakfasts, yogurt/granola, etc. We were saving ourselves for the cinnamon rolls so we stuck with coffee, which was decent and included refills (heaven). As promised, cinnamon rolls were fresh out of the oven when we returned to Sonshine and they were very good, not too sweet or too gooey to take to go; we returned about three minutes later and got some donuts as well.

Punta Gorda seemed surprisingly organized compared to Dangriga; I guess I had expected utter insanity on the Belize Frontera. The road to PG is not yet fully paved and the parts that are paved have only been so for a few years. However, roads and sidewalks are in decent repair, there are numerous hotels in all price ranges, many restaurants, and a lot of vehicles (presumably everyone needs a vehicle to connect to the outside world). There were a couple of interesting handpainted signs.

Hand Painted fishing cooperative sign. 4 sale ice fillet lobster conch. Punta Gorda, Belize

Hand painted sign. Triple used clothing. Punta Gorda, Belize

Because of the centering, I have a tendency to read this sign as ‘Triple Used Clothing.’

Hand painted sign. Welcome to Olympic bar. Punta Gorda, Belize

Hand painted sign. Dillon's music and cold. Punta Gorda, Belize

Dillon’s Music and Cold. We had a couple of colds here and listened to some of the pirate CD collection that Dillon has displayed on the wall behind the counter.

Hand painted sign. Hillside health care center. Punta Gorda, Belize

This sign was directly across from Dillon’s and I was amused by the detail and complexity of the hours.

Hand painted sign. Funy Shiny. Punta Gorda, Belize

Hmm. Funy Shiny. It was closed but the sign was amusing.

Beautiful Butterlfy, Punta Gorda, Belize

The owner of Nature’s Way let us borrow her daughter’s bikes for a day and we pedaled slowly for hours around and outside of town in an attempt to create some breeze on the still humid day. This butterfly had transparent panels in the wingtips.

Stormy sea

We ate lunch at an Indian/Belizian restaurant across the street from Nature’s Way. The restaurant is on the third floor of a building right on the water and the views were awesome. We both tried the conch, which was stewed in a coconut curry sauce, and it was excellent. The sauce was flavorful without overpowering the flavor of the conch and they served it with a tasty habanero sauce (not Marie Sharps) that is made in house. (The photo above was the view straight out over the water and the image at the top of the page is looking north over the town.)

Let’s Eating! Dangriga Town

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

Of course, there were a lot of consumables in this town and we found and consumed our share.

Our favorite was the woman (possibly named Teresa) who set up a stand to the right of the Havana grocery store across from the bus station. She made flour-tortilla tacos (soft small tortillas folded over; we might call them burritos but they were called tacos) using stewed chicken, some sort of marinated cabbage, and hot sauce and they were great. She is there daily but only in the mornings and there typically was a crowd. Her tacos are 50 cents Belize apiece (that’s 25 cents US); three of them makes an excellent breakfast.

Our second favorite was the night burrito lady in the green stand in the middle of town on the main street. She was on the same side of the street and about two or three doors down to the left from the “Garden Shop” mini-market (which is across the street from the big hardware store). She is closed up during the day but opens at night and you can barely see in her window due to the massive refrigerator that hogs all the space. She also makes burritos and hers are $2 Belize apiece (you could eat two maybe). Then you can get some beer at the Garden Shop and eat a nice picnic dinner at the beachfront park down the street. Note that there is a prominent green food stand on the corner directly across the street from the hardware store advertising tacos and burritos and while she is open pretty much all day, her burritos are not as good as either Teresa’s or the other green stall.

Incidentally, if you are self-catering, the Garden Shop sells shilling (25-cent) bags of frozen water, which you can bash up for iced drinks.

Many restaurants and bars also had excellent hand-painted signs.

Hand Painted Sign. Fast Food Endas Cuisine. Dangriga Town, Belize

Hand Painted Sign. Food for sale just around the corner. Dangriga Town, Belize

Hand Painted Sign. King Burder. Dangriga Town, Belize

We serves breakfast! We were told that the place used to be called Burger King until the owner received a cease and desist notice in the mail from Burger King â„¢. He has diner style food and makes his own ice cream (and has sour sop flavor!). The conch soup came recommended but Joshua was not too into it (I thought it was all right).

Hand Painted Sign. King Burger Menu. Dangriga Town, Belize

King Burger had a series of groovy menu signs.

Hand Painted Sign. Unique delight meat pie. Dangriga Town, Belize

That meat pie illustration is super awesome.

Hand Painted Sign. The new place snack shop. Dangriga Town, Belize

New Place, Old Sign.

Hand Painted Sign. Rum ads. Dangriga Town, Belize

This was outside one of the bars in town. (You can view a larger photo by clicking the image.)

We didn’t actually go to this bar but we did go to a place called “Bleachers” (bleaching means, apparently, getting wasted). They are just up the street from the bridge in the center of town and they make their own bitters. Bitter drinks seem to be popular in Belize and theirs is a gnarly concoction that is scooped out of a five-gallon bucket into small plastic cups; you order it by $1, $2, $3, etc. amounts. We ordered $1 bitters and beers (you typically need a beer chaser if you drink this stuff). I kind of liked it but then I’m all over bitter things generally. (Brad—it tasted sort of like the un-refined version of your absinthe, but in a more drinkable way. I *suspect* Shanti would not like it..)

Hand Painted Sign. Clarks Seaweed. Dangriga Town, Belize

Seaweed drink is a gelatinous drink made of seaweed obviously, and flavored with a little cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut milk, and perhaps a tiny bit of rum. The one we tried was actually off the main square in Orange Walk Town and was served in recycled Guiness beer bottles.

BOOZE: Beer by the way is Belikan Belize and it’s quite good in my opinion (after Mexican and other Central American fare). They have one bottle and you can get both regular or stout (different bottlecaps to tell which one). There is also a light version but honestly, who drinks light beer? Guiness is also widely available but it is made either in Belize or possibly Jamaica and is probably a little different than the Irish version most are familiar with.

You can also get Campari (they call it Bitters) in Belize; it is made in Jamaica, is wonderfully cheap (~$7 US per bottle), and tastes almost exactly like the Italian version. The color is only a little bit off, maybe they don’t use carmine bugs to dye it the beautiful red they do in Italy.

Belize makes several different “wines,” such as ginger wine, cashew wine, blackberry wine, etc. We tried the ginger wine (there are two brands that appear to be widely available: Fandango and some other one; the other one is better). It’s pretty good as is (I recommend chilled), intensely gingery but strong and very sweet and it is much better, in fact VERY much better, if served over ice with a splash of soda water. Mmm. We were intensely curious about the cashew wine but never tried this due to the elaborate cautions we received by every single Belizian we mentioned cashew wine to. “That stuff is dangerous mon.” “Your grandma drink that stuff, she go dancing in the street naked!” “You drink one bottle of that stuff and you are drunk for three days. So I guess it’s economical. Of course you don’t remember any of it!” So we stayed away from the cashew wine; we got enough shit from people for drinking the ginger wine.

MISCELLANEOUS: Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce!! Almost my favorite thing ever. I threw a colossal fit when Joshua proposed a return to El Salvador via Mexico/Guatemala and not via Belize (where I could stock up). We returned via Belize and I am the proud owner of about fifty gerjillion bottles of hot sauce. She makes the traditional carrot orange habanero sauce (in mild, hot, fiery hot, and novelty—has capsum oil in it and a warning label about feeding it to the elderly). She also makes an orange/habanero and a grapefruit/habanero version and various jellies and chutneys. We’ve only tried the habanero jelly so far because the jar smashed in transit but I salvaged the majority by slicing the glassy bits off the outside (ala moldy cheese). It’s pretty good I think; it has very few ingredients but you can taste each one but the habanero heat is very mild. I’ll report back later on the Green Mango Chutney, which must be just awesome.

Fresh juices: At most of the grocery stores (there are two big ones near the main bridge and the Havana market across from the bus station) you can buy fresh juice in squarish plastic bottles (like what Odwalla comes in). The grapefruit in particular is very good.

Coffee: None. Bad, vile. Drink coke.


Sunday, February 26th, 2006

We arrived in Mazatlan on the second day of Carnival, which is supposed to be the biggest party outside of Rio. Lucky us. Approaching in the wee hours, we were actually able to hear Mazatlan before we were able to really see it. The streets were filled with scaffolding and temporary party structures and stages. Daylight hours were spent checking the massive sound systems with whatever nightmarish pop the sound dude had on hand, restocking the thousands of cases of Modelo Especial, and clearing the debris from the night before. As evening approached, the streets along the Malecon were blocked off, souvenir stands set up along the streets lining the free side of the party and sold random crap like kewpie dolls or cowpunk hats, and by around midnight, half that Modelo had been consumed and the town pretty much went apeshit. Food stands sold gorditas (weird fat little pancake/patty/biscuit things), salted nuts, and hot dogs. We were hard pressed to find tacos and this was a shock after La Paz.

We spent a couple of days wandering all over old town Mazatlan and got near the Carnival party when after it was blocked off but didn’t really feel like entering. The crowds on the outside were enough and I was not feeling all that optimistic about the selection of live music on the inside based on the crowds of drunk and tarted up teenagers. I guess I’m officially old now.

Here are some photos we took.

Balcony Mazatlan, Mexico

We visited Mazatlan once before in 1996. After a long bus ride from Tijuana, we arrived during a torrential downpour; we waded across the street to the nearest hotel (possibly this hotel was called “The Moldy Cockroach”) and promptly passed out for several hours. When we came to, it was still pouring but we felt like we should see something of the place so we got our rain gear on and started walking. The wrong way. We ended up in an area called ‘dorado beach’ or something like that; it’s the developed tourist section of town and a long way from the main center of Mazatlan. By the time we got there, we were hungry and there was nowhere to eat except freakish mega-resort restaurants and American fast food chains. We were thoroughly traumatized by the experience and left Mazatlan the next day. We’ve held the opinion that Mazatlan is a total dive ever since but then we had no idea that we were never really in Mazatlan.

Um, the point of all that was: Behold The Quaint!! Building in Old Town.

Cool building in Mazatlan, Mexico

As it turns out, downtown Mazatlan is really very nice. The market is large and functional (actually has normal market fare and not just shot glasses and sombreros) and in a cool art nouveau-ish building. Buildings around town were varied and interesting with a lot of colonial, neo-classical, and art deco facades.

Cool Graffiti in Mazatlan, Mexico

There was some cool graffiti in Mazatlan.

Abandoned Building Mazatlan, Mexico

There were also a lot of abandonadas, many of them being consumed by their own gardens.

Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell