Wednesday, January 23, 2013

CA Trek 2013 - Semuc Champey

Our next stop after Antiqua was Semuc Champey, known as one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. It certainly lived up to its billing.

A late departure combined with a longer than expected travel time meant our we ended up spending pretty much the entire day in transit. The road had us winding up and down mountains all day which offered up some spectacular views of the surrounding valleys. The last stretch of the trip was down some of the narrowest and bumpiest roads I have ever encountered. Surrounded by dense jungle, in the dark and with a light rain starting to come down, it was a bit of a harrowing experience.

We finally arrived at our hostel in a nearby village, ready to unwind. After a warm meal, we commenced with the standard drinking and dancing. Though we were all pretty tired and didn't last for long, we managed to go hard enough to get our biggest and smallest members up on the bar.

The next morning, we set off for Semuc Champey in truly local style. Our mode of transport: a single pickup truck with shoulder-height steel support bars surrounding the bed. The nineteen of us crowded into the back and took on the bumpy jungle roads. A couple local boys hitched a ride along the way, standing on the back bumper until they got near their destination and hopped off.

We finally arrived and were lead by our guide up a steep mountain trail. Drenched in sweat, we reached the top and were rewarded with an eagle's-eye view of the natural pools below. Caught up taking pictures, I actually found myself separated from the group at one point and headed down the wrong path, which lead to some frantic jungle running to reunite with them.
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Having made our way back down the mountain, we dropped off our luggage and went for a swim in the crystal-clear pools formed by a river winding through the mountains. The water was cool but not cold and felt great after our hike. A couple people had waterproof cameras, so we had a great time jumping in and out of the pools. With huge forested mountains surrounding us, it was a gorgeous setting to have some fun.
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A short walk from the pools took us to the caves of Lanquin. This was to become a crazy adventure that would never be allowed in the US, but will live long in memory. There is an underground river flowing through the caves. It ranged in depth from just a couple feet to over my head, but was barely moving and easy to swim in. The cave was completely unlit - we were each given a single long white candle for light. Our guide was nothing short of a madman, and he took us to some crazy spots. First there was the waterfall we could climb up a rope through, then the 10+ ft high ledge we could jump into a pool from, and finally a small hole with water running through it that we could shoot through from one room into the next. In hindsight, any one of the three could have lead to a serious injury, but everyone who tried them come out safe in the end. A few scrapes and bruises was a small price to pay for such an adventure.

Ready for something a bit more relaxing, we grabbed a bunch of inner tubes to go tubing down the river in. But before we could put in, we were presented with another option: a giant swing placed to launch ourselves into the river with. Mike Lebow, being a lover of all things daring and outdoorsy, went first, doing a graceful backflip off the swing. I lead the charge after him with a bruising side-smacker and was followed by several others' wince-inducing belly-flops. Battered but still in high spirits, we picked up our tubes and let ourselves float soothingly downstream.

There was still one challenge left available: the opportunity to cast ourselves from a 12m high bridge spanning the river. I am afraid of heights, especially when there is a risk of falling, and normally would never have even considered this. But something about the day's activities had me feeling brave and adventurous, so I decided to give it a go. Directions to jump from a very specific location and admonishment for deviating even by a step raised eyebrows and questions regarding safety, hardly helping calm the nerves. As I stood in to the edge, grasping the steel garters behind me, I had a moment of fear. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath to clear my mind. After a quick look up at the sky, I leapt. Elegant I was not, but I landed safely. The brief seconds underwater, surrounded by cold and silence, gave me a feeling of incredible calm. It all made me feel a little bit more alive. Four of us made the jump in total, all without incident, all glad we had taken the plunge.

We loaded back into the truck for the ride home. I stood on the lower rails instead of the truck bed, letting the wind whip through my hair as we bounced down the road. Feeling a little invincible, I tried to get the group singing, though it mostly just lead to me belting out lyrics to songs others didn't know the words to.

Dinner back at the hostel was delicious and we warmed ourselves with plenty of beer and rum. The standard dance party was followed by small group conversations late into the night. It was a truly memorable day full of countless great experiences and moments shared between friends. IMG_8383

After a short night full of lots of drink and little sleep, we packed up and left at dawn to cross over into Honduras and head to our next destination: the ruins of Copan.

Monday, January 21, 2013

CA Trek 2013 - Antigua

I kicked off the New Year with an absolutely amazing 18 day trip through Central America with a bunch of my classmates. We had countless adventures spanning four countries so, rather than sum it all up in one go, I decided to write about each stop as we leave the country, then post them one by one once I've processed the pictures that go with it.

We began our journey in Guatemala, meeting up in Antigua on Jan 3rd. I got in around 1pm and spent the afternoon exploring the city. It's fairly small, but has a cute colonial style that has made into a tourist-hotspot. In the evening, once everyone had arrived, we went out to dinner at a very highly rated Guatemalan restaurant called Fonda de la Calle Real. Several of their dishes have been declared intangible cultural assets if the country, including a chicken dish called pepian that I tried. My general impression of Guatemalan food is that it's a bit on the bland side and while the dish was good it didn't really blow me away.
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Day two was when our adventure truly started. We got an early start to the morning and headed out to climb Pacaya, an active volcano nearby. As we made our way up, we were greater with beautiful sweeping views of the area. Once you reach a certain point on the way up, trees and greenery give way to black volcanic rock. With wispy clouds low overhead, it often looked like a foreign planet. When I said that it was an active volcano, I really did mean active - as in it had erupted just over a week before we visited.
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By far the coolest part of the day was roasting marshmallows using the volcano's heat. It wasn't anything like the top of the volcano of flowing magma, just one particular overhang that emitted a crazy amount of heat. It only took a few seconds for the marshmallows to start browning up deliciously and made for an awesome snack in the middle of our hike.
Another cool spot on the volcano was what our guide referred to as a "sauna". In actuality, it was a little cave with really warm air that you could climb down into. Though it looked tiny from the outside, it was surprisingly spacious and could even handle our giant leader, Jesus.
We stopped for a late lunch in some little country town. Nothing phenomenal, just simple but solid Guatemalan food. We drank enough Gallo, one of the major Guatemalan beers, that they had to go out and buy more. We were also introduced to orchada, a sweet drink that we concluded would go great with rum, and took several bottles back to our hotel for the evening.
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We made one last pit stop at an outlook that gave us a view out over all of Antigua. The surrounding mountains were still partly shrouded in clouds, but we still had a decent view for sunset.
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The evening was spent partying, starting in one of our rooms with horchata and rum. Once we had expended our supply, we headed out to put something more solid in our belly. After a quick bite (and a few more beers), we moved on to a small club for some drinking and dancing. Bars are required to close at 1am in Guatemala, but we followed the crowds and found ourselves partying again at a speakeasy type club. The beauty of traveling with numbers is that you dominate anywhere you go, which we put to full use taking over the dance floor. We kept going until the place closed around 3am, then were told we had to wait just inside the exit because there were police just outside the doors.
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The next morning, we loaded up our vans and left Antigua for Semuc Champey. While not the most stunning of cities itself, it had treated us well for the few days we were there and served as a great way to kick off our journey.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2013 - Get It Together

しっかりする (shikkari suru) - To get it together, to do thoroughly

Twelve months ago, I laid out a plan to live a better life. I've done a decent job of following through on it - at the least, I've improved in pretty much every aspect listed. But, though I would agree my life is better off for it, I still wouldn't really say I'm happy.

As I thought more and more on why that might be, I kept coming back to one point: I'm simply not satisfied with who I am as a person. I've always been hard on myself, sometimes maybe unfairly s., But no matter how i look at it, I can't honestly say I am the person I want to be.

So I started making a list. It isn't in any particular order, items were just added over time as I noticed things I felt ought to change. Some are bad habits that can be easily addressed, others get deeper at who I really am as a person. I'm not going to say that this is all it takes, but it seems like a step in the right direction. The list has gotten a bit lengthy by now, but it goes something like this:

-Swear less
-Stay on top of classes
-Don't procrastinate so much
-Less ums and uhs
-Stay in touch with people
-Care about what I cook
-Become a better conversationalist
-Talk less shit about people
-Stay positive
-Better posture
-Learn how to network
-Make fewer excuses
-Find confidence - and not just after a few drinks!
-Don't sell myself short all the time
-Make the effort to dress well
-Be more decisive
-Exercise better self control
-Be more curious
-Read more and expand my perspective
-Don't underperform simply from lack of effort

The sad truth is that even though much of this list has existed for a couple of months now, I can't say I've made a lot of progress. I guess it's one thing to put it on paper, another to put it into action. I know that these changes won't all happen overnight and that many of them can't even be accomplished given a whole year, but I want to start making a dent in it. So, to keep myself accountable, I'm putting this list where everyone can see. Feel free to yell at me if you think I'm not doing a good job at these.

 Not wanting to neglect the changes I target last year, I'm setting off tomorrow on an 18 day adventure through Central America, during which I promise to take a ridiculous number of pictures. I've also decided that I'm going to take another stab at the 52 Week Project this year, so look forward to something interesting every week!