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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

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In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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I picked these up at a religious goods shop in Saltillo, Mexico several years ago.

The salt, oil and incense with the St. Benedict holy card are “bendita,” I was assured by the clerk. (Blessed by a priest).

I was particularly interested in the saint in the center – San Charbel Maklouf – for I had seen his image in several homes during the week.  Why is a Lebanese saint so popular in Mexico?

(For, I was told, he is – along with St. Jude, one of the most popular saints in Mexico.)

The person I was talking to didn’t really know, but I assume at least part of the reason has to do with the fact that Lebanese are an important minority in Mexico, with deep roots going back more than a century. One of the world’s wealthiest men, Mexican telecommunications magnate and New York Times owner  Carlos Slim, is Lebanese -Mexican Maronite. Salma Hayak is part Lebanese-Mexican.

Most of all, of course, he’s popular because of the power of his intercession. I didn’t see it, but it’s common in Mexico to drape statues of San Charbel with ribbons on which you’ve written prayers. You can see lots of images of this here. 

Speaking of St. Charbel, readers may or may not know that Maronite Catholics are not unknown in the South.  Particularly along railroad lines – the Lebanese were one of the ethnic groups that showed up to do the work.  I gave a woman’s day of recollection over in Jackson, Mississippi, once and a huge proportion of the women present claimed Lebanese roots.  Here in Birmingham, the Maronite Catholic Church, St. Elias, is venerable and established.  The Catholic elementary school my boys used to go to had a Maronite school Mass twice a year. Fr. Mitch Pacwa, who lives here, is bi-ritual and regularly celebrates the Maronite liturgy at St. Elias when he is in town. Here is a photo of Fr. Mitch on the occasion of the tour of St. Charbel’s relics, which stopped here a couple of years ago. 

A few years ago, I went to an estate sale, and this one was unusual because there was lots of Catholic stuff.  That’s not a normal feature of estate sales in Birmingham, Alabama.  But this one was very Catholic and specifically, very Maronite.  This was one of my treasures from that day:

Do you have a St. Charbel thermometer?

Didn’t think so.

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We are back in Birmingham. It was sketchy there for a bit last night. Our flight from Belize City took off a little early and went smoothly, but about 30 minutes from Houston, a flight attendant standing in the aisle next to me mouthed to another approaching her, The airport’s closed. 

Oh.

I started working out in my head where an international flight could be diverted – probably Dallas or New Orleans. Dallas would give us a better chance for getting home reasonably on schedule. If it was New Orleans, I could rent a car and drive and be home in five hours. This might work.

But no need. After a few announcements – airport’s closed…airport’s open now…we landed.

Then we got the delightful news that because of lightning, the ground crews were not allowed on the field to guide the planes in, and until lightning moved beyond that 5 mile radius, we were stuck where we were, rain beating down around us.

Welp. My only hope was that this delay would impact all flights – how could it not? – but the United app kept showing my BHM flight on time, which made no sense to me. Finally, it showed a 15 minute delay, which still made no sense, but just in case, I started researching options – there were none. No fights from any airline out of Houston in Birmingham after 7:45 (not that that were many anyway).

Oh well. The only glitch for me was that my older son, who has been at an academic kind of activity week in Chicago with a friend was being driven back by the friend’s dad – and the original plan was for a Sunday travel day. But…then J texted me with the news that they were going to hit it hard and leave Chicago then and go the whole way – he’d spend the night at their house, since they wouldn’t get back until 3 am or so. That was all still fine, but if we were delayed and couldn’t get back until noonish on Sunday….

You don’t have a house key with you.

Because you told me not to take it so I wouldn’t risk losing it. 

Right. 

No, not a huge problem, but still another annoying factor to factor in.

Well, the lightning finally cleared, we taxied and were allowed off the plane. We raced to immigration which was, amazingly, a cavernous empty space. Obviously because the airport had ceased operations for a while, but still startling to see. Through US customs and immigration in 5 minutes? I’ll take it.

Maybe there’s hope!

Or not. If you are not familiar with how to deal with connecting flights after international travel it’s this:

You have to clear US immigration, then get your bag from baggage claim, then recheck it, then go through airport security to get to the domestic part of the airport.  My app was still showing a 7:45 departure, so I was fairly hopeless at this point – because it was 7:35.

(And why did we check a bag? Because you probably know that I usually don’t. Because a couple of the souvenirs we bought wouldn’t have passed through security – a sharp thing and some liquids over 4 ounces. I was really questioning the wisdom of those purchases at this point.)

The baggage handler who would take our bag for recheck scanned things here and there and determined that we still had 19 minutes to make our flight and we might as well try. I was optimistic, based on his word, for about 23 seconds – the time it took to leave him, go up the escalator and see the security line. Pretty long. Ridiculous.

We got through, and while I didn’t think there was hope, we forged on. On the skytrain to the terminal I saw the airport Marriott and figured that would be the night I’d use the one free room I have left in that account. We departed the train, raced to the gate, and the first word I saw was DEPARTED.  I stopped dead in my tracks, disappointed but not surprised, when a guy in a beautiful crimson Roll Tide t-shirt said, “Oh, it hasn’t left yet. We haven’t even started boarding . I don’t know why it says that.”

Thank. You.

…and the flight attendant was in a very good mood, and was generous with food and drink with those of us in the back of the plane – some of them were finally getting home after some 24-hour delays out of Denver, I guess. My car started when I got to it, and the conversation between the two passengers behind me was weirdly related to my life in quite specific ways and while at first I thought, Huh, that’s weird, as time went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more than weird and that maybe I’m really supposed to do the things I’ve been intuiting I’m supposed to be doing.  I mean, I could have been seated in front of two people talking about real estate or health care or their grandkids or sports, but no, they were talking about this particular thing with these particuar references. Huh.

So anyway, we got home, we’ll be reunited in a few hours, and we’ll have a week of finishing up summer work, piano, perhaps another person in the family having braces put on his teeth and then the boys go off to Florida for one more jaunt before school starts, both in another building and at home….

(I said I wasn’t going to write in detail about the trip here on the blog, and I’m not – except for two posts. I want to do a wrap-up post about the food, which was consistently the best of any trip that I’ve taken abroad – and a post with practical suggestions for those who might be considering such a trip themselves.)

 

 

Scenes from Saturday, our last day. We stopped at the Belize Zoo on our way to the airport from San Ignacio. Even the airport food in Central America is very good – at least in Belize it was. 

 

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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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— 1 —

So, yes, some of us are in Guatemala this week. As a backup for this blog, I scheduled reprints of Mary Magdalene posts from last year. For the life of me, I can’t remember if I actually proofread and updated them, so this all might be quite awkward. My internet has been mostly terrible, and when I’ve had it, I’ve used it mostly to make sure my ATM card hasn’t been skimmed and my bank account drained, so I hope you have enjoyed the Mary Magdalene posts, whatever they say. Read the book! 

— 2 —

The rest of this post will be mostly photos, and not the best ones, even. I have been using a real camera for this trip, but failed to bring the little card reader I need to put them on my computer, since this tiny thing doesn’t have an SD slot. So you’ll have to make do with my phone photos, which are okay, but not as comprehensive as what’s on the…camera. Remember those?

But …I will say this, and I will say it here mostly to hold myself to it. I am not going to post a comprehensive trip report. I’m going to write it in book form and publish it on Amazon – for a very nominal fee, yes, but I really think I have enough to write about here for at least 20-25,000 words, but I don’t want to bother with a traditional publisher – and I don’t think a traditional publisher will be interested.  I mean, who the hell wants to go through a year of writing/editing/thinking about marketing/rewriting/selling some little book about my Guatemala trip? Nobody, not even me. But I’m willing to spend a few weeks on it, and toss it out there for whomever is interested.

There was a day when writers did this sort of thing all the time, and there were magazine publishers who were willing to put out a long-form article or newspaper publishers who would serialize, but no more. I’ve decided that for this kind of experience, a series of blog posts is selling myself and interest readers short. So hopefully, when I get back, I can buckle down and do this thing.

Send thoughts and prayers my way, please!

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Hate  ” thoughts and prayers your way,” by the way. We pray to God, not send prayers to each other. So, just kidding. 

— 3 —

So, yes. This has been a week of ruins:

 

Tikal, Yaxha, Uaxactun, Aguateca and Ceibal have been visited. Not all pictured. 

— 4 —

Nature has been spotted:

Just the tiniest fraction. Most photos were taken with the camera. The oddest thing is – you think before you go to somewhere like this that Seeing a monkey in the wild in a tree will be the most amazing thing ever!” And the first two times, it is. And then you realize that they’re like Guatemalan squirrels, and you get over it.

— 5 —

Food:

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And all of it has been fantastic, and none of it been served in anything but fairly basic restaurants. Comedors – sort of like a diner.

The very humbling thing is that every bit of it has been actual food, not  Cysco can contents warmed up or stuff from Sam’s or Cotsco’s thawed and heated. It’s real food, really cooked right there in the kitchen using ingredients that someone nearby either grew or caught or raised. This is real farm-to-table, and for far less than 30 bucks a plate and without the attitude or pretense.

Left: dining room in Flores. Right: Kitchen in village near Uaxactun ruins. 

— 6 —

And just encounters and experiences:

 

— 7 —

Oh, and Star Wars background scenes. That, too.

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For further reference…go here. 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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And here we go with chapter 4 of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader (to use a big word) epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

As I have said before, feel free to use this material in any way you wish, even copying them for parish discussion groups. The full pdf is available here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

 

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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