Saturday, December 03, 2016

The road to Tikal


November 2015.  Newly-licensed controller Ammon and long-suffering (training is hard on the spouse) sidekick Sasha prepare to embark on their first significant overseas trip together.  It was to be their first multi-stop, non-resort holiday, lasting a grand total of 16 days.  Nerves from Ammon, excitement from Sasha.  Sasha was to finally get a taste of "backpacking", Ammon, a chance to dust off the rusty skills and get adventurous again after a 3-year hiatus. 
The inspiration: A nearly similarly routed trip by Bre and Donovan 2 years prior.
Flights booked? Check. 
Guidebook borrowed from the library? Check.
Passports still valid? Check.
Just one thing  missing......recruit backup. 
Enter Mom.
What more could a well-adjusted, mature man do but call his mother and invite her to partake in the madness again in times like these?  She had, after all, survived everything before.


The first difficulty was encountered immediately after exiting Cancun airport on arrival.  Mom, arriving an hour earlier from Amsterdam in a different terminal was nowhere to be seen, and there was no wifi to coordinate.  And then Mom, like the shining saviour she was recruited to be, strides into the terminal to rescue the two bewildered travellers who were in the process of being devoured by time-share touts. 
Quickly fleeing to the sanctuary of an air-conditioned bus direct to Playa del Carmen, the three spent the first night in the company of a friend of Sasha's who had been visiting there at the time.  Numerous small hotels, beachfront restaurants, a pedestrianized-waterfront street, brand name shopping.  Tourist paradise on Earth?  Three differing opinions were voiced on this very topic, but no consensus was reached for early the next morning they would depart, further from development and closer to adventure.


Aircon coach bus from Playa del Carmen south to Chetumal on smooth roads, past resort and theme park entrances and views of thick green bush alongside the highway.  Brief confusion during a 10 minute walk from the bus station to a small market with buses departing for Belize city.  Bump, bump, rattle, rattle, stop for passengers randomly and often.  This, Ammon remembers. Back pain, uncomfortable seats.  This, Mom remembers.  Children in school uniforms and small settlements outside the window.  This, Sasha will remember. 
Darkness in Belize city at the bus station is less than ideal.  It's small, little more than a parking lot, a couple little convenience food and supply stands and dark, undeveloped roads around.  No ATM, no major signs of life but plenty of factors suggesting it was best to continue moving on.  So onward they continued.  12hrs of buses and transfers before stumbling off the bus and into the waiting arms of the quiet town of San Ignacio, Belize. 
San Ignacio, like all things in Belize, is small, quiet and easily manageable.  It makes an excellent base for exploring the western portion of the country and caters well to foreign visitors with nice little restaurants, a good selection of accommodation, banks, tour agencies, transportation and sites to visit.  Popular destinations from San Ignacio include cave tours, hill stations and a variety of Mayan ruins.  Using San Ignacio as a base for the following three days our protagonists made excursions to the mayan ruins of Xunatunich and Cahal Pech as well as the Belize Zoo. 
Xunatunich is an old Mayan centre of significant size and well preserved and makes a nice introduction to Mayan ruins without the crowds and chaos of the more famous locations.  It has a more open and manicured feel.
Cahal Pech is on a hill above San Ignacio a 20 minute walk away and was surprisingly deserted, allowing an adventurous scramble amongst the more moss-covered and atmospheric ruins. Beware of wicked Mayan spirits, who were surely behind Sasha's falling and earning her first lumps. 
The Belize Zoo is something special.  It is more of an animal rehabilitation and wildlife education centre and is quite small, but contains only local species.  The setting feels like walking in the jungle and is very intimate with well kept animals in well thought out pens yet still easily viewed and admired.  Jaguars, howler and spider monkeys, toucans, tapir, crocodiles, harpy eagles and macaws all made their presence known.  Crowds were small and despite a downpour on departure, it remains a highlight of the trip. 
Quiet San Igancio, Belize

Belize breakfast

The Dr. Pepper junkie is back
Hand-crank ferry to Xunatunich

Xunatunich
Xunatunich

Xunatunich
Belize zoo - Tapir

Toucan!

Jaguar

Spider Monkey
Cahal Pech
Cahal Pech


Tikal. Mighty Tikal.  Once a major Mayan city the 1300 year old ruins are worthy of inclusion on the list of great world ruins.  In the far northeast of Guatemala, there are three main strategies for a visit. 
1.  A long and exhausting day trip as a tour from San Ignacio.  Terrible idea. 
2.  A long day trip/tour from Flores, Guatemala.  The most common strategy, perhaps best for those in a hurry or on a budget but without actually saving much budget or time. 
3.  Stay in Tikal overnight in the little village of three hotels and a couple tourist shops just outside the ruins.  There are budget options, there are nice options, there is way more atmosphere. 
In his infinite wisdom Ammon chose to take a chance on option #3. 
From San Ignacio, a bus, a walk across a border (~2km, not altogether appreciated by his sweating sidekicks), another bus, a wait at a highway junction.  The girls glow from the heat, Ammon sweats for lack of public transit going the right direction and a plan only half formed in his head.  Within 45 minutes a tour bus stops to pick up our stranded travelers.    It is a group of backpackers taking option #2. 
We quickly learn the following:
1. We would rather not be with a tour.
2. Pretty much everyone can speak better Spanish than us.
3. The entrance to the Tikal archaeological area  (where you buy your ticket) is a 20 minute drive from the ruins. 
4. We were ahead of schedule but our new and improved plan was still going to work.
Unbeknownst to many visitors to Tikal, if you enter the site and buy a standard entry ticket after 3:30pm, the ticket is valid for the following day.  So thanking the tour group, we bailed out at the entrance gate and waited 2hrs until 3:30pm to buy tickets along with about half a dozen other independent travellers that had also somehow made their way to the gate on their own.  The ticket office started selling next-day tickets (cash only) at the appointed time and, like a carefully orchestrated dance, an old beat up little school bus (the last of the day) full of local Guatemalans pulls up to squeeze all the strategic travelers in. 
Quickly checking into the very adequate budget rooms at the appropriately named Jungle Lodge, Sasha admires the view of the jungle canopy and monkeys swinging in the trees, Ammon, in well-concealed terror searches for man-eating spiders lurking under the bed...  Satisfied as to the immediate survivability of the situation, the three excited visitors quickly walk into the ruins complex for a teaser of what's to come the following day in the final hour of daylight available.  There are night tickets and tours of the ruins available as well as sunrise options but they were deemed too risky with rain in the forecast. 
The following day, packing snacks and drinks for a full expedition, our well-rested and energized heroes channelled their inner Indiana Jones and set out to explore.  Unlike most other popular tourist attractions, Tikal still retains a very wild and undeveloped feel.  It is a walk through the jungle to find some ruins without the manicured lawns, information signs and concrete pathways you'd typically expect to see.  Roots, mud and wildlife are very much part of the experience.  Monkeys, parrots, coatimundi, frogs and bugs abound.  The central ruined temples are very popular but few people have the time or energy to walk out to the lesser known and more distant ones that can be as much as a 20 minute walk from each other.  It is also possible to climb to the upper levels of some of the larger temples, from which you can catch a glimpse of the other tops rising above a solid mass of treetops stretching as far as the eye can see. 
The feeling of sitting on top of an ancient ruin listening to troops of howler monkeys roaring at each other in the distant trees below?  In a word, Chills. Eerie. Wild.  Or perhaps just Scary.  It sounds like hungry unseen dinosaurs waiting to rip you to shreds the minute you descend. Risking life and limb the adrenalized explorers climbed and crawled and wandered.  Poking a head in here, scrambling over stones there, they soared in the bliss of discovery.  7.5hrs later, exhausted but triumphant, confident in having covered every trail in search of all there was on offer, they wearily stumbled back to their jungle abode to gaze contentedly at the jungle mass from the relative safety of a fine dining room.  That night they drifted into the perfect slumber of the content.
Ammon
Jungle lodge, Tikal

Off to find a temple

Tikal



Thursday, November 24, 2016

Blog Revival

Well hello again!
It has been far too long now since I disappeared and "retired" from the travel + blog gig.  I guess I got lazy and out of practice because I have started to travel a bit again but I haven't written at all.  The plan is for me to take over this blog once again and regale you with my latest adventures.  I'm sure Sasha will be a major player and the rest of the family will be making appearances as well.  As most of you already know, Savannah has her website and blogs of her travels and activities at www.sihpromatum.com so jump over there for some more great stuff.
So a quick update on my life these days:
I "checked out" as an air traffic controller just over a year ago in Prince George, BC (YXS).  It wasn't exactly what I was expecting but after all I've been through, adjusting to life a little farther north (and significantly colder) hasn't been bad at all.  The positive adjustment was significantly helped by the fact that Sasha also moved with me to Prince George and we are all cozy and settled in now. 
Work is good.  I enjoy the challenge and excitement of the day and have arguably the best view in town :)  Fortunately I am also blessed with quite a bit of time off and combined with Sasha strategically working as a casual at the BC Cancer Agency and our both being financially disciplined, we are able to get away a couple times a year to travel again.  My next few posts will be to relive and retell the last few short trips we were able to do in the past 12 months. 
Ammon
My view at work.

Winter sunrise at the tower.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Our 10 Year Anniversary



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TODAY is our 10 year anniversary of a life changing event. Mom, Ammon, Bree and I took off on an adventure that lasted four years and took us through 80 countries as a family, changing all of our lives forever. It’s incredible to look back and see how much we have accomplished individually and as a family since we took that leap of faith, left our normal lives in Vancouver, Canada and flew to China. Each step we took for the next four years was a mystery and gamble that ultimately took us to where we are today. Since then I have grown so incredibly much and become a person I would never recognize as that same teenager who left kicking and screaming ten whole years ago.
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                                                                       During our trip  
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  After the trip
As a family we made unforgettable memories and shared the most incredible experiences. Together we have stood in some of the highest and lowest points on earth, jumped from planes and bridges, learned to scuba dive in the Red Sea, trekked by camel back in the Sahara desert, slept under the stars in the Himalayas, walked on some of the oldest creations in the world, relaxed on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and lakes, shared meals and slept in local family’s homes throughout West Africa and Afghanistan, listened to locals’ first hand experiences of wars and ventured to Timbuktu and back again!
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                           Nepal                                                                            China
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                      South Africa                                                           Dominican Republic
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                          Sahara Desert                                                           Timbuktu
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                               Sudan                                                                 Maldives
Bree has since become an incredible stunt woman in the movie industry, Ammon has become an air traffic controller and I have become an author.
After falling in love in the deep dark jungles of Africa I moved abroad and became an expat in Holland at 18, visited 100 countries and wrote two books.
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                                 Then                                                                             Now
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I am so excited to see where else this life will take us because I know there is so much more in store for each of us! I love watching my family grow and form their lives around things they love and are passionate about.
Savannah
PS. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Sandra who greeted us on the other side in Hong Kong for the very first days of our trip. She is a big character in Book 3 so you will get to know her very soon.
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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Thank You

Today was release day! Wow. I received so many “happy release day” comments, and it has been better than any birthday or Christmas with all the posts, shares, tweets, interviews, guest posts, and reviews going live all over the web.

All of this excitement has made it easy to reminisce on the past four years and my writing journey. I have gained a loyal following and highly-engaged audience with a current Klout score of 68, which can be attributed to my new expertise in social media.

When I was 19, I considered going the traditional publishing route, but was shot down time after time after time again, until I eventually decided to self-publish. I didn’t want to wait for someone else to make my dream a reality. It was scary, and a big risk to take out loans to fund it all, having no prior experience in the industry, no platform and no idea where to start or where to go.

Now, after hundreds of hours of hard work and dedication, I can proudly say “I Grew My Boobs in China” has gained a readership of over 35,000 since its release. It has been featured in both local and international newspapers, aired on CTV (Canada), won literary awards, ranked in Goodreads' top #20 “Best Memoirs” category, sold at the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada and is currently a finalist in the 2014 Kindle Book Awards. I am also the founder and co-host of popular weekly Twitter travel chats #TRLT (The Road Less Travelled) and #Travelpics.

It’s hard to believe that when I started off in the whole book world, I didn’t have a Twitter account, Facebook page or Amazon account. I didn’t even know what Goodreads was! I had absolutely zero platform, which is why I never landed an agent in the beginning. What a sihpromatum. I have since had agents and publishers agree to work with me, but decided against that route in the end.

Most exciting is that I was able to pay back all the credit cards and get out of debt in the first year, but I took the gamble all over again and started on the second book, this time without using credit cards or borrowing any money. 

I am still be classified as a “starving artist”, but if things keep going as well as they have been, I can have a positive expectation of the future and that one day, I may be able to support myself by doing what I love most.

After another year of writing, and nearly half a year of piecing things together (editing, formatting, interior design, cover design, printing), the second book in the series, “Backpacks and Bra Straps” released TODAY.

I have lots of exciting things lined up for the next couple of weeks, including interviews and reviews which I will be posting. If you’re interested in reading the latest articles, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

I am so grateful to all of my many fans, supporters and friends who I have met along the way. I truly couldn’t do it without them and I hope I can repay them one day. One of the good friends I was fortunate enough to meet is Jessica (@JLipowski on Twitter).

Now, with 13,000 followers, you may wonder how the heck you can make any serious connections through Twitter. How on earth are you supposed to remember them all. Well, you don’t. And I sure as heck hope you’re not expected to, because I don’t. But there are the few Tweeters who send that one extra line, starting a conversation that turns into a lasting friendship. I am so glad that Jessica came into my life! She is an American expat writer who has been living in Amsterdam for the past 3+ years. On Sunday she invited me down to meet a friend of hers who is also a writer and currently traveling around Europe. Our fun-filled sleepover was quickly dubbed a pre-release, writer-girls party!

I have been living in Holland for nearly six years now (yes, that is almost impossible for me to believe!!) and rarely use public transport. But every single time I take the train down to Amsterdam I feel the most liberated, happy and free. I feel so independent and love watching the gorgeous green fields speckled with sheep, horses and windmills, huge white clouds hanging in the blue sky above. I just pull out my computer for the 45 min. ride and write an interview, the last bit of work before taking a real day off. 


            


As soon as I got to Amsterdam Central Station, Jessica, her Dutch boyfriend Matthijs  and her American friend Lanie swept me away into the city! I hopped on the back of Matthijs’ bicycle, Dutch style, and we cycled through the buzzing of trams, buses, hundreds of bicycles, pedestrians, and cobblestone streets to the most atmospheric restaurant I’ve ever set foot in. 

Jessica is working on her first book, which is about the cultural, diverse backgrounds of restaurant owners in Amsterdam. She has spent the past year interviewing dozens of restaurants owners and, in some instances, trying the food. For our visit, she took us to Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs. When you see the doorway and the intensely steep, almost ladder-like, red carpeted staircase through the dimly lit doorway, you almost can’t believe it’s true.


                                                                 


Matthijs and Jessica ordered traditional Dutch pancakes with cheese and spek (bacon), while I took on one of their specials. Special is an understatement! When people tell you “this is the best place ever!” or “the biggest this” or “the fastest” that, you get this awkward pressure to feel the same way. Well, I had no struggles at all when it came to the pancake house. By the end, I was convincing HER that they were the best pancakes ever. I had this dream pancake with the moistest, sweetest whipping cream… it was like a whipped cream, rhubarb soup, on top of a  thin slice of soft pancake. Delectable!

The owners, who Jessica previously interviewed for her book, a chubby Dutchman and his small, Indonesian husband (who has the sweetest, boyish smile ever), are a jolly gay couple. They live in the apartment above the tiny restaurant. There are all of four tables in the cramped space and old tea pots hang from the ceiling. The owner cooks in a space hardly big enough to turn around in, the two-burner stove squeezed in under the sloped wall, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The door to their living quarters is at the top of those ladder-like stairs, cramped under a sloped roof in a way that makes you wonder how they could possibly manage to crawl in.


                                                              


Our next stop was not far by bicycle to the Brouwerij 't IJ, situated at the foot of a classic windmill. No matter how many I see, or how often, I am always excited when I see a windmill. The brewery has a fabulous atmosphere under the vine-covered patio, lined with long trestle tables and bar tables, locals and visitors alike drinking and laughing heartily together. Taste testing, American jokes and drink-inspired selfies filled the night.


                                                    


Jessica’s self-designated tour guiding’s spoiling didn’t end there though. Next thing you know, Jessica whips out her secret stash of Kraft Mac n Cheese dinner!! That terrible, good stuff is the food every North American secretly loves.

I want to thank everyone who has made me feel so blessed and a special thank you to Jessica for giving me such a nice pre-release riot. It was the perfect time. Going down there gave me a big boost of much needed, fresh energy.

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