Antigua

The Antiguan flag

Louise was a sour faced lady with boy cut hair and a kind heart she was too afraid to show. She was a short, frail, older white woman freckled and bronzed by the sailing and yachting she did regularly with her British Husband. She didn’t smile or laugh, a little awkward with eye contact, but her curiosity about me still poked through. She asked me questions, disinterestedly, and made few references about herself or her own life. She was uncomfortable when I sat beside her on the plane, which wouldn’t have struck me as unusual except that the plane had 50 other empty seats I could have chosen to spare her the act of friendliness. When we landed, she casually offered to drive me to my couchsurfers place, despite it being completely out of her way on the other side of the island.

Me and Julia

She dropped me off at Springhill Riding Center, a stable I would couchsurf for the next 5 nights with a Polish woman named Julia. She was beautiful, with orange hair as wavy as birthday ribbons falling all the way to her belt. Her bright blue eyes matched the turquoise Caribbean water she often took her horses swimming in, and her big perfect smile lit up her whole face everytime she talked about something beautiful. She thought everything was beautiful – the horses, the flowers, the trees, the fruits, the beach, the sea, the harbor, the boats, the cliffs, the trails, the roads…

She seemed to be 25 at heart, but the few wrinkles in her face gave her away for older, and only

swimming with horses

her weathered hands had aged to the 38 years she really was. Her hands were rough from a life-time of horse handling. Her English was good, her German, apparently better, and Danish and Spanish lingered somewhere too. She had decided to travel the world for horses, working in Poland, Germany, Denmark and now Antigua schooling horses and training riders.

We took the horses swimming one day, and the next 4 days I was given the duty of taking one lame horse for his daily swim. By the end

Big Joy

of the week, I took him on a trail ride and he had stopped limping all together. I took another horse riding named Joy, who was so much bigger than the Icelandic horses  Ive grown accustomed to. I couldn’t even see over her back when I stood beside her, and her every step in any gait seemed like an exaggerated, slow-motion heave.

It was hard to leave the stable, but I wanted to explore more of the island. With Julia, we went out a few times to dance, meet other couchsurfers, and took the scenic drive along Old Fig tree road, where endless banana plantations and pinapple fields grow along the windy road along the coast. I went to one of her belly dance practices, where her and some other ex-pats jingled around in colourful, sequined bras and coin belts. Another dancer friend of hers invited us to their burlesque-show practice, where 5 middle-aged women sexily danced around in flirtatious Moulin Rouge attire.

We met another friend of hers named Pep, a retired astrophysicist who is also a UC Berkeley Alumni. He had plenty to talk about, full of incredible stories, and in his old age had become a

Beaches on Fig Tree Drive

single guy with an eye for younger women. He also had the heart of a 25 year old, and, I believe, was in love with Julia. He lived in a house on the hill overlooking Falmouth Harbour, and rented out his rooms to young boaters to have some lively roommates and company to mingle with. He asked me questions about my life in Berkeley, when I would go back, and I mentioned my (failed) attempt at a serious relationship there that would have otherwise still kept me in Berkeley. Then he really started to psycho-analyze me, and wanted to know why that guy didn’t knock me over the head and drag me into the cave then and there since Pep started to worry that I may now become the kind of girl who never settles down.

I tried and failed to make it to either Barbuda or Montserrat, since the one and only Barbuda ferry had lost its engine just 3 days earlier, and the Montserrat boat only traveled on Mondays, even though Wednesday and Thursday were advertised on their website. Instead I got to walk around St. John’s, lost in the midst of 2000 cruise ship passengers window shopping for overpriced jewelry and underpriced liquor and tobacco.

cruise ships in St. Johns

I stopped at a bakery to buy lunch and all they had was bread or buns, with ham or cheese. Still it took the baker 5 minutes to handle each customer, so I waited for a while to get served. The guy behind me in line was in pilot uniform, badged Liat, on and off the phone constantly to try and get out of flight duty. By the time I got served, he snuck up behind me and pretended to be with me, ordered the same thing I did, and paid for both our lunches. Then he got a call to say he didn’t have to fly, and offered to show me around on his afternoon off.

Simbo was Dominican, half-black, half-white, with the accent and build of an islander, but the skin and blue eyes of a westerner. He took me to the helicopter pad offering tours of Montserrat where a pilot friend of his worked. The island is a huge volcano, that blew up something fierce in 2007. I was tempted to take the $240US tour but for 45 mins of flying around a volcano and not even landing on the island to explore it seemed like a waste… especially since Pilots in uniform get to fly free and I could have just stopped at a costume shop to match Simbo. Instead he showed me Dickinson beach, where you cant walk 5 metres without being sold something – coconuts, massages, beach chairs, earrings, jet-skis, braids, or dread locks.

Nelson's Dockyard

I spent a day exploring English Harbour and Nelson Dock, where all the super yachts and privately owned sail boat mansions float around, looking shiny and unused. It also creates a huge sailor culture, of young crew from all over the world living and working on these boats for the owners who only use them a few times a year. I considered taking a stewardess job for 2000 euros for month (food and rent included), but the boat was going north and I was headed south.

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Guatemala's little towns, lakes and volcanoes

Me, Claudia and Guy rode horses to the Guatemalan border from Copan, and even though we almost lost Claudia from her asthmatic reaction to both the horses and not being used to riding (sorry, Claudia), I’d still recommend it as an awesome mode of transportation to anyone traveling in Central America since it gives you so much more time to appreciate and absorb the landscape passing by. There are so many cornfields covering every inch of agrable land, and since the season just ended, they stand as dying, drying golden stocks that have all been handpicked since there’s no way a machine could navigate the steep, uneven hills they cover.

a drive-by photo of one of the many, mountain-top cornfields

Our first city we visited was Chiquimula, somewhat of a transit hub so we passed right through, but it will forever be remembered as the cheapest place to buy cigars. I bought about 40 hand rolled, Guatemalan cigars for $2,  $0.05 a piece. We spent one night in Quetzaltepeque, at a hotel for $6 a night that included a bottle of drinkable water, a bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper, and all our bedding and a towel. It was another small, untouristy town but with really friendly locals that me and Guy befriended in Central Park by hanging a hammock and lazing in the crossfire of some boys playing soccer. They were all really curious about us, and asked lots of questions in between laughing at our broken spanish answers and showing off their soccer ball juggling skills. When it got later and all the kids returned home, only one older boy stuck around to offer us bread from his parents bakery, and two elderly men, one with a pistol in his belt, stopped by to ask almost all the same questions as the boys just had. We had to leave the park at 11pm when some police came by and told us we were no longer in the right place at the right time, obviously skeptical of some long-haired blonde guy and gringa smoking cigars alone in a hammock. I was a little relieved to return to our hotel since just a few hours before, a massive cockroach had flown accross the park and landed on my right shoulder, so heavily that I thought it was someone putting their hand on me but when I looked over my shoulder, just saw his long tentacles dabbling over my neck.

the view from Yellow House Hostel's rooftop patio

We were in Guatemala again, after a couple day visit to El Salvador, going straight through the sprawl of Guatemala city to charming Antigua. We stayed at the Yellow House Hostel, one of the cheaper choices in a plethora of options, with an amazing roof-top patio with views of all the surrounding volcanoes. We hiked the popular Volcan Pacaya, and after a three hour hike through hot, new lava rocks, the lava flow we reached served as the perfect place to roast marshmellows.

getting ready to roast marshmellows over Pacaya's lava

The market that you have to walk through from the bus terminal to get into town was one of the best markets I shopped at, full of hidden treasures to find. The way the Mayan people adorn themselves in delicately embroidered clothing makes everything very colourful, with their round eyes as their most prominent facial feature; they have big, bright eyes with black eyelashes that grow straight out from their perfectly curved eyelids. I saw one Mayan woman walking around town selling scarves who was totally albino, and I couldn’t help but stare since it was the most strange but beautiful sight to see someone who looked exactly like all the other Mayan women, but farer than everyone else even including the palest, European complexions.

this girl was supposed to be selling all the pretty things she had to offer, but took some time off to teach me Mayan

I spent a few days on Lago Atitlan, and wished I could have just lived there for a few weeks. Its a very serene, peaceful lake surrounded by huge mountains, and even though its predominantly populated by indigeous Mayan, a lot of tourists move there in search of a yoga-esqe, meditative retreat. I really enjoyed interacting with the easy-going locals, my favourite being a 7 year old girl who barely spoke spanish, so instead spent her time teaching me words in her Mayan dialect, forgetting about the 10 pounds of merchandise she carried around on her head that she was supposed to be trying to sell to me. Many people believe the lake has some sort of healing power, and I think that if you believe it does, then it certainly has the capacity to heal you in whatever way you want.