The road to Myanmar (or East of India in company)

Well once more a chance to escape from the UK in the depths of a crisis laden NHS. Richard the third may have had it right prior to his car park years “Now is the winter of our discontent.” We’ll see soon enough if it turns to glorious summer after much political blood is spilt in the long march towards a general election in May.
If the threatened gales leave Heathrow untouched on Saturday then we will fly to Bangkok and on to Yangon by Sunday 11th of January. So a chance to compare the good life of the whinging poms with that of the Burmese.

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4th Post from Guatemala

Day 11 Monday and a relatively empty day with no onward travel-luxury! Same hotel so my washing is now starting to dry.
Again the entire orchestra of local birds join I with a riot of calls at dawn including a bird with an ascending glissando of notes which is a real laugh. I’m unable to see most of them but the noise is incredible! It’s definitely an improvement on the late night howling dogs. The local perros are a lethargic thin poorly cared for bunch and the howling at the moon I can happily live without.
Out of habit we again watch dawn over the lake and volcanoes before settling back to sleep punctured by the exit of a large group of French tourists at about 8 am. We are grateful to fester in bed until mid or even late morning and slowly surface into the very warm sunshine outside. A late coffee and a chat to our fellow tourists is followed by a bit of planning and lunch. Cliodna is deteriorating visibly with tummy ache and diarrhoea after lunch. We pad gently around the village of Santa Catarina before heading off to the local forest park. There we decide to try the zip wire rides that run in zig zags down from the caldera rim. 6 of us are kitted out with climbing harnesses and are clipped onto the wires by 2 lovely little Mayan guides who pair up with Ilse and Sharon to guide them down the hills. The others are the 2 Swiss and ourselves. This is a bit of a challenge for me since I do have a problem with vertigo but I concentrate on the technical issues at hand chiefly the need to brake from 22m per second to zero with a gloved right hand on a wire to avoid splattering into a tree or rock at the end of each wire. The first 253m traverse is hair raisingly rapids but I gently come to terms with the runs and actually enjoyed all 8 of them. Cliodna has a mild case of thoracic whiplash from braking too late on one run but she’s a tough cookie and makes it to the end and it’s enjoyed by all of us including Marvin who comes along to make sure we survive! Back in the town of Panjachel we liberate more money in the form of Quetzales from the local bank and set ourselves the challenge of getting a new fuse for our electrical plug adaptor. Eventually I succeed after a long wait while the store owner locates a 50mAmp fuse and tests it for me before letting me buy it for 1 Quetzal. Definitely the best value in Guatemala! Our evening meal is a superb one with Cliodna eating seafood in rice and I an enormous black bass from lake Atitlan. It’s delicious and washed down with beer, white wine, chocolate cake and coffee. So finally we return and pack for the next day’s travel up into the western highlands for 2 days in Nebaj. We’re much more rested now and although I too am succumbing to some diarrhoea, I feel that the final 4-5 days will be very good. Lake Atitlan has worked its magic on us and the Maya here have borrowed my heart if not entirely stolen it.

Day 12. Tuesday and Santa Catarina at Atitlan to Nebaj.
The magic of Lake Atitlan is nearly over but Cliodna is up at dawn and returns quickly to suggest that I watch it too. The light changes every few seconds and as a result we photograph the lake and volcanoes repeatedly with Michael helping too. A leisurely breakfast now that the other noisy guests have left is very good and then the bus climbs up the caldera rim with ever changing views of the lake and a very high waterfall. The next stop is the market in Solola. A colourful affair with stacks of local produce and the Mayans in local costume looking delightful. Bustling to the point of physical compression it’s a great place and the people watching is great fun. The Mayan children are making the best of a hard life with the market traders and are facially very beautiful. I can’t decide whether the bundles of live 5 river crabs tied up with a palm leaf or the purple miniature tomatoes are the star buys. A man buying half a kilo of pork scratchings caught my eye too.
All too soon we are on our way west into the highlands and by lunch time are in Chichicastenango at the restaurant of Mr Tomas, everyone in this town has Tomas in their name, it’s sold as chicken soup but is of course chicken next to some delicious soup and is in truth at least 2 courses preceded by a local aperitif seasoned with salt and lime on your left hand. Fiery but good stuff for this type of local booze in my opinion. The food is great including the fruit salad and coffee.
Unknown to me there has been a rebellion fermenting in the back of the bus and 3 of our female touristas have decided not to stay in the next down market hotel. During the breathtaking ride through the hills leading to Nebaj, Marvin tells us his life story which led him to flee to Mexico then the USA during the civil war. It’s a compelling tale of being kidnapped by the army at 16, escaping and then being saved from forced recruitment at gunpoint by the local guerrillas by his boss a local pharmacist. It also included his excess drinking habit and failed first marriage prior to his post civil war return to his home country and how to cross the Mexican border. All this was relevant to the story of suffering of 3 local villages including Nebaj.
More prosaically by far the 3 women head off for a different hotel but 2 come back. The third has a fit of the vapours allegedly about the non white sheets in our hotel (they’re patterned!) and stays elsewhere. The 2 returnees have now displaced Marvin and our driver Gregorio who have to leave and stay elsewhere!
The dinner is simple and good and goes with a swing after Cliodna’s insistence on buying a large round of beers. It’s cold in the room at night and I sleep fitfully rather than well.

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Third post from Guatemala

Day 7 Tikal to Flores. Thursday.
Up before dawn all 4 of us walk purposefully west through the dark jumble of pathways, mud, tree roots and darkness to temple 4. Here we climb 70 metres up a series of wooden stairways to the steps/seats upon which approximately 200, mostly young people sit awaiting the sun. The forest mist fails to oblige us, so there is no visible sunrise, just a misty dawn above the tropical canopy. We start to munch our breakfast as we listen to someone else’s guide. He’s very charismatic and appears to have his group of truculent and mostly overweight youth of the USA in the palm of his hand, as he explains the sounds of the forest to them. Some of them even take off their iPhone music headsets to listen?
We eventually descend and explore the massive Mayan legacy of Tikal in the slowly clearing mist. The grand plaza with temple 2 and the acropolis on 2 sides, facing the iconic symbol of Guatemala itself temple 1, over 60 metres high and initially impossible to photograph due to morning mist. Each temple is a stepped pyramid surmounted by a room for religious ceremony. Here too the confused architecture of the necropolis, with its multicoloured wild turkeys strutting over it. We avoid climbing temple 2 until meeting the main tour group later, but visit many collections of temples including the 7 temples area with 3 pelota courts or ball courts, at times used to determine who would be sacrificed to the gods. The lost world area, with the oldest temple on the whole site and the ravine between the acropolis and temple 5. We climb temple 4 again to see the tree canopy and spices of all the temples before meeting our group with a strangely ineffective local guide with a comedy squeaky male voice. He tells us little but encourages us to climb temple 2, which has been recently renovated with its carved jaguar faces now an incongruous pearly white colour amidst the dark grey of the surrounding stone. The day becomes ferociously hot with us continuing to eat what has become known as the all day breakfast, in truth some of it is finished a day later. The final flourish is climbing one of the twin temples in complex Q in searing heat before padding gratefully back to our hotel. Here Cliodna and I slip into the small outdoor swimming pool for a 20 minute cool down before a final beer and Tikal ice cream, delicious.
The drive south out of the park to Santa Elena takes only about 90 minutes and we are staying in a smart new, avant guard even, lakeside hotel and after purchasing tomorrow’s picnic lunch, head into the adjacent town on the island of Flores to look around and have a well earned Mojito in a bar. The church in town is elaborately filled with beautiful blue drapery in extravagant swags across the aisle. I’ve never seen the like before. Our waterside evening meal of beef and fish washed down with few beers is incredibly delicious. So to bed for an early start again.

Day 8. Friday.Too long a day from Flores to Coban.
Up at 6 am for a drive first to the river then 90 minutes by boat down stream to the reportedly mosquito infested jungle area of Ceibal. A climb up a slippery path in increasingly persistent rain to find the Mayan remains or in some cases the fibreglass replicas of their stellae in a jungle clearing. They’ve rebuilt a temple which is nice but not completely authentic. There was a minor rebellion amongst the troops yesterday in anticipation of physical activity and mosquitos but the day goes rather well in the end, with even the less fit travellers rating it 7 out of 10. We picnic in the boat on the way back, which is fun, although the rain towards the end is miserable. The site seeing including the added bonuses of spider monkeys, frogs and toucans takes up a good 5 hours and puts us behind on the journey schedule. Pam decides to walk back to the boat early and has to re- climb the hill in order to be put on the right path, much hilarity about this, as she is pretty shy of taking exercise. The long road south continues relentlessly into the evening darkness. Our evening meal taken in a shopping mall with local food of poor quality. Cliodna accurately describing it as refuelling rather than eating. We are staying a little outside Coban, again in a smart hotel but get precious little time there, apart from sleeping, and in our case rather surreally watching a bit of the film “romancing the stone” including a bus crash in South America followed by a gun fight and car chase, it could easily have been filmed in this country.

Day 9. Saturday and Coban to Atitlan.
Another very long day indeed and guess what, up at dawn for a trip to the Biotopo de Quetzales for an early morning walk in the cloud forest which is a gentle pastime with no visible animals apart from 1 small brown bird. The centre is a bit run down and tired but a heroic breakfast is served to us at a nearby hotel to make amends. The local porridge is as good as it is unexpected. Sadly I have developed abdominal pains and feel awful but despite this manage to get through it. I endure more stomach cramps and sweating as we head south out of the cloud forest into the desert leading to Guatemala City again, with all its attendant traffic and decide to have chilli bean soup for lunch. This turns out to be a liquid chilli con carne i.e. A much bigger meal that I’d intended. I’m by now convinced that the shopping mall food I’d eaten last night has poisoned me. If I can tough it out then it should pass. The drive into the hills and volcanoes near lake Atitlan is stunning with a near perfect sunset just before we reach our hotel in Santa Catarina. After a brief key jammed in bedroom door fiasco, solved by time and WD40, I’m eventually able to make it into the bathroom for a much needed bowel movement and after some medication resolve to have soup for dinner. The local vegetable soup is poor but has the merit of not upsetting me further. It’s curious, no diarrhoea but a very unhappy bowel indeed.

Day 10. Sunday Santa Catarina on Atitlan lake and no onward travel.
Our room has a balcony overlooking the hotel swimming pool, lake and volcanoes. Sunrise is gorgeous despite my reluctance to be awake at that hour. I mostly stay in bed and write the diary like a good introvert should. My tummy feels like today will be a better one too. After coffee we FaceTime Aislinn to see if she’s ok after her post operative infection and she’s chirpy although the connection is so bad that we have to give up after a few minutes, at least it shows that we care! Around 9 we head for an all day boat trip and I must say that the view of the volcanoes from the lake is amongst the very best I have seen, simply amazingly beautiful. We stop at a women’s cooperative cotton weaving place to see how it’s done and obviously buy some goods before walking a few miles to the next town of San Pedro with its whitewashed church and blaring town square tannoy, market with the biggest cloves I’ve ever seen, delicious fruit juices and coffee on backpackers’ corner before regaining the boat to take us to a highly civilised little restaurant for lunch. It has its own manicured gardens bursting with flowers. We move on again by boat to Santiago where we visit another church built on an old Mayan shrine and filled with Mayans in their local dress; which for the men is a cowboy hat, white and blue vertical striped long shorts with an elaborate cotton belt and shirt. The women a patterned wrap around long skirt, cotton belt and highly patterned blouse, with some of the older ones wearing a head dress of narrow orange cotton wound around their head to form a band the size of a sombrero brim. We get a master lass in how to do this from an elderly woman with a face as lined as an be imagined and a mouth full of gold teeth. Both churches today are filled with green drapery. The local water supply has failed here several days ago and the women are collecting water from the lake! The route back across the lake is fairly rough and I’m spattered with water most of the way through my ever open window. Buying goods today has destroyed our reserves of Quetzales and it’s the bank for us tomorrow. Dinner is excellent beef and fish as Sharon, a retired barrister or should that be barista, gives us a master class in how not to use a mobile phone? I fear this will not be the end of the mobile phone saga. I thought our Swiss friends would die laughing. What must they think of us all?

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Guatemala trip posting 2?

Day 6 Wednesday 22nd.
Up early as ever at Hotel Villa Caribe with its little huts clustered on the hillside and bright blue swimming pool down below our balcony. At dawn the Egrets in their Snow White plumage quit the palm trees below and fly to our left one by one after awakening. In contrast the brown pelicans fly up river to our right. The sun struggles to illuminate the underside of the thunderclouds driven in land over the jagged mountains in front of us with orange light. The dawn is visually fascinating and we have a ringside seat with a cup of tea in hand. The restaurant has a similar view and we finally manage to get a light breakfast which is appropriate! The dock below us has our long 3 seat wide outboard motor rigged boat and under leaden skies we head off at speed into the estuary and up river past the men fishing in dugout canoes. The pipe leading down from the limestone cliffs pumping freshwater out into the river, where the locals fill up their containers with drinking water. The fishermen look Mayan not like the Afro-Carribean Garifunas dancers and waiters last night.
The warm drizzle engulfs us as we head upstream into the red mangrove lined river, past the boats of the wealthy and black and white kingfishers which delight in perching on telephone wires and huge clusters of cormorants and black vultures. Our search for a sea otter fails. The river Dulce becomes a lake and we pick up the pace again hammering at high speed towards the town of Rio Dulce which is the lowest crossing point of the the river at its connecting point with lake Izabel the largest freshwater lake in Guatemala. The river links it with the gulf of Honduras. Here we pick up our bus again for the very long drive North just inside the Guatemalan-Belize border towards Peten and our goal of Tikal. The bus is searched for fruit at one point because you’re not allowed to import certain fruits into Peten including local apples. I have a British apple in my rucksack so set a new personal best for apple eating rather than lose it! Lunch is a slow cooked affair at a delightfully alternative place near the road north with a bar area near the curiously bright blue lake kitted out with light fittings made from Panama hats, interior decoration at its best? My hamburguesa is excellent but we delay too much here for which we pay later. The emerald humming birds feed too at the sugar water feeders next to us. The bus barrels north through increasingly dense jungle. We want to get to Tikal in time for a view of the sunset from temple 4 but miss out by about an hour but do see a spectacular one at a nearby lake instead. Our hotel is a collection of lovely bedrooms in huts in the forest linked by a path to the central building with its restaurant and bar areas. Dinner is good and we arrange with our Swiss friends Oliver and Roland to get some packed breakfasts before dawn tomorrow for our trek into the huge Mayan city site of Tikal. It means a 5-30 am start with torches in the dark. They switch the electricity off at 10-30 here so we repack our stuff because we will be moving on again tomorrow.

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First posting from meso-America Guatemala 2014

Day 1 Guatemala trip-Friday 17th Jan.
Up a little early for the drive to Heathrow. Still a bit dizzy from trying to complete everything needed before scarpering off on holiday. Traffic light and on schedule to the airport with a ridiculously easy check in at terminal 4 with United Airways. No queue and no messing around. No VIP lounge either which was a slight drag but an excellent coffee a nice pastry and all was well again.
The flight to Houston was a curious inversion of privilege with business class rammed to the gun whales with those seeking to avoid the congested rigours of economy class! In the latter there was acres of empty seating with whoever chose too stretched out asleep and a relaxed aircrew who seemed happy to respond to Cliodna’s repeated requests for drinks of all sorts. We watched 3 films during the 10 hours, Blue Jasmine, Argo and Midnight in Paris thus catching up on some missed films and probably seeing an oscar winning performance in the first from Kate Blanchette, we’ll know next month. It respire scented an overdose of Woody Allen dialogue for Cliodna but they’re three pretty good films indeed for a plane ride. The time passed happily and even the food was good. Cliodna has started to relax and the enforced idleness was greatly enjoyed by her.
Houston in transit is an interesting experience with an immigration hall the size of an aircraft hanger and stuffed full of Asian people in Disney style queuing systems. Appalling signage and staff who are generally disinterested had us in a needless queue for an hour before being fingerprinted and waved onwards to other queues for the plane to Guatemala City. All 2 hours for the connexion were thus used up completely with the bureaucracy that is the hallmark of the giant of the Americas. I’m not sure how much I like having my dabs on record in the land of the free, where the protection of personal data is low on the agenda and homeland security very high even if you aren’t actually entering the country. Still at least our ESTA form held up and we weren’t deviated out to Panama like some of our co-travellers to Guatemala!
We slept on this flight an accumulation of travel hours, 6 hours of time shift and an arrival time of 10-15pm taking their toll.
The airport in Guatemala City has the most highly polished of floors. The exchange rate scam of every country is in force here and our hotel pick up failed us but no matter we made it to the faded colonial grandeur of Hotel San Carlos an old ambassadorial dwelling intact and exhausted to a room off the courtyard garden and slept the sleep of the jet lagged until 5-30 AM at least.

Day 2 an intro to Guatemala City Sat 18th Jan.
We start the day with a breakfast at leisure in the hotel with typical Spaniish colonial type eggs and tortillas. We chat to a young couple visiting from the U.S. The girl is of Guatemalan origin and gives us some tips about eating in the lake Atitlan area. She’s fun and later that morning we get a taxi out to the museums of Popol Vuh and Ixtchel. The former is a museum of Mayan sculpture all beautifully presented with stunning funeral urns, Dresden copies of original Mayan paper documents and good depiction of the extent and chronology of Mayan culture. In a large modern setting the other half of which houses the extraordinary textile collection of Ixtchel. This is poorly lit and confusingly presented but with a good film explaining the collection. They have a wealth of material here but the exhibits have little oomph behind them.
If you suggest to the hotel that you might like to walk somewhere they go a bit pale and strongly suggest a taxi. We comply and after a light lunch at the hotel and a delightful afternoon rest in the poolside garden with its banana palms,( part of one came crashing to the ground next to us in the wind) coffee bush and spectacular flowers have a rum and coke prior to a very short taxi ride to our tour hotel the Stofella a good 200 yards away. This is much more modern hotel. We wander into town a bit to pick up a local SIM card for Cliodna’s old Nokia phone which has been an ever present travel companion for many years. The shopping centre also let’s us get some money out of an ATM machine. At the first tour group meeting our group only partly arrives so it’s deferred to day 3 and we walk out to have some local Guatemalan food en mass and are serenaded by a band including the biggest guitar I have ever seen. It’s about the size of a cello and has a nice base tone to it. The food is unremarkably bland and the beers surprisingly strong. On exiting the restaurant I see that it is guarded by a man with a pump action shotgun! What? The next 2 buildings have similarly armed protection. Macdonalds has an internal security guard. Saturday night in Guatemala City is a serious affair.

Day 3- The group and on to Copan. Sunday.
After a humungous breakfast we meet as a group for an hour introducing ourselves, all 14 and our leader Marvin. A group of highly travelled folks including another GP. So medically the pressure’s off me. They all seem friendly enough and we take a bus tour around the city stopping at a viewpoint to look at 2 of the volcanoes on the edge of the city before a good look at the cathedral and central square outside the parliament building. The cathedral is massive and mass is being said there. Despite this we have a good look around it and listen to the lovely singing. In the square a market is just getting going. We head for the trip bus to leave and 3 young thugs decide to pick on the stragglers on the way to the bus. Cliodna is punched in the chest by the violent quick one who grabs her gold chain from around her next to steal it. She holds onto it and he runs away empty handed. The chain has snapped and Cliodna’s badly shaken but relatively unharmed. The bus speeds us away out of town and glad to have got off so lightly.
It takes 5 hours up into the mountains of western Honduras to reach Copan an ancient Mayan city and high in the clouds. We pass a funeral cort├Ęge en route and it later overtakes us to force its way through some roadworks causing chaos and blocking the road completely. The border crossing is a relaxed affair with the standard bizarre customs declarations which the Hondurans do not seem to read anyway. Another curious stamp in the passport in brown ink.
It’s a very simple hotel in Copan and an evening meal of fajitas and cheap red wine. Pam and Kathy provide raucous anecdote based humour at my end of the table fed by Michael’s dry one liners. Meanwhile at the other end Cliodna has a more sedate time. A very pleasant evening and an early night in order to be rested for the ruins tomorrow.

Day 4 Monday 20th Copan.
Breakfast in town at 7-30am a so called buffet. In reality a massive meal brought on plates to an L shaped dining table outside but under cover which is just as well in the light rain. We all eat too much before heading out to the ruins. Here our young guide is excellent and his description of the temple sites and the hieroglyphic staircase that is the archaeological gem of the site is really good. 2 dozen scarlet macaws give a flying, landing and squawking demonstration for us too. The Mayan tombs, ball court and sacrificial stones are all interesting. In common with other special places this one set in the jungle has an impressive aura to it. The museum of sculpture on the site is impressive too with a replica of the temple preserved underneath the existing stone one. A very good morning indeed. The afternoon is dominated by a trip to Macaw mountain a bird sanctuary where they breed from parrots too tame to be released and seek to repopulate the national bird of Honduras the scarlet macaw in at least a small way. They also roast and grind coffee on the site and it’s a powerful hit I can testify. We decide to walk the 3 Kms back to town and end up in a backpackers’ bar in Copan. The evening meal of beef fajitas and pork steak is delicious, washed down with local beer as these meals tend to be.

Day 5 Tuesday 21st Copan to Livingston.
Breakfast taken as a group with a different table set up, today we have a long run of tables with seating for 14 all down one side thereby creating a scene akin to a painting of the last supper. I’ve no idea why this configuration has been adopted but the same heroic quantity of food is produced and eaten! After a quick morning burst of FaceTime chat with Aislinn to check that she’s recovering well from her surgery, We drive off into the hilltop cloud and descend past the unlikely looking hills back to the border where we are waved into Guatemala again with barely a pause. No one is interested in our capability as smugglers this time. The mountain scenery continues to be a stunning array of volcanoes and jagged peaks all morning with our leader Marvin giving us an impressive stream of information about his homeland, drug cartels and the violence which distorts our view of Central America!
My lunch is ordered as chicken soup. This is served in fact as soup(vegetable) and a quarter of a chicken alongside. It is however possible to rearrange the contents of the plate to actually impersonate chicken soup.
Next up is the Mayan remains of Quiragua. A smaller city state than the glorious Copan from which they separated by killing its ruler a king known as eighteen rabbits! You can’t invent stuff like this it’s much stranger than fiction. The site is covered with stellae dedicated to the rulers of the city in generally excellent condition and we also learn that today’s banknotes still have Mayan numbers on them to indicate their value. The ball court is much smaller than yesterday’s as is the acropolis but there’s a wealth of bird life around us including Montezuma’s oropendola with its impressive sulphur yellow tale. Overhead the black vultures circle as they have done daily since we left the big city. The group has stayed relaxed and remains happy. The final drive of the day takes us up to the Caribbean Coast at Porto Barrios then an exhilarating fast boat ride on to Livingston at the mouth of the river Dulce. Our hotel is on the cliff there overlooking the sea and is delightful.
The evening consists of cocktails Mojitos and a pineapple daiquiri, followed by Caribbean drumming and hip vibrating dancing. All is well until I’m selected, from our group, to dance on stage by a very large black female dancer. I’d be given no points by any sane judge, due to my innate lack of rhythm and rigid lumbar spine, but generously no one is cruel enough to comment on this.
The prawn and plantain soup with fresh fish is a joy to eat. Harry and Kathleen, both keen twitchers and the oldest couple on the trip, entertain us during the meal and their post retirement activities are a fine example of what can be over-achieved at any age.

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Guatemala 2014

What is the correct dress code for Central America? Is the Panama hat even allowed there?

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Guatemala trip 2014

Nearly there now a flight in 2 days to escape the British monsoon season.

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