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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

— 1 —

It’s the feastday of St. Clare! I’ll refer you to last year’s post on her, with links to biographical material and her letters, as well as photos from our own trip to Assisi.

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If you read nothing else, take a look at her letters, especially those to Agnes of Prague.  

From last year’s post: 

Agnes was the daughter of a king and espoused to the Emperor Frederick, who remarked famously upon news of her refusal of marriage to him, “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offence because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.”

She entered the Poor Clares, and what makes the letters from Clare so interesting to me is the way that Clare plays on Agnes’ noble origins, using language and allusions that draw upon Agnes’ experience, but take her beyond it, as in this one. 

 

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There are no photographs allowed inside the Basilica of S. Chiara in Assisi, which is where the original San Damiano cross is now kept. Here’s Ann Engelhart’s lovely painting of the San Damiano cross from Adventures in Assisi. 

 

9. Santa Chiara basilica - spread 8 copy

— 2 —

And….the first week almost done. Driving to and from school has happened several times. I am loathe to say too much about that because, I admit, I’m superstitious. Or, as I prefer to say it, I believe there is wisdom and truth in old adages like “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

So all I’ll say is that for me, my level of tension has decreased as the week as progressed. The fact that the new anti-texting-while-driving law took effect on 8/1 has helped. Not that I don’t see people still studying their phones on the road, but I’m hoping those numbers will, indeed, decrease and the risk to others decrease as well.

 

— 3 —

Speaking of Alabama….this is for you, in case you need to be amused. I guess it’s basically the same crew that does SEC Shorts – I don’t care a wit about football, but I find any kind of subculture – including fandom – fascinating, and always enjoy some precision satire and observation. These are hit and miss, but when they’re on, they’re really funny.

So they’re doing these. Some are weaker than others in both writing and acting, but my favorites are:

 

And the one on “southern” accents in movies…and bless your heart is okay, too. 

It’s just fun because they’re filmed in Birmingham, and the sights and sounds are familiar – there’s one about the challenge of eating healthy in the south that has a snip of the guy running in the park, distracted by an ice cream truck, which is very funny because he’s in Railroad Park where there’s always an ice cream song driving the world mad with its tunes….

Also – in one of the videos, “Things you never hear people saying in the South” – there’s reference to a wedding being scheduled on a football weekend. A few years ago, when I was living in the front-porch neighborhood (still missed – but we just needed a different space…), I was walking and overheard a woman talking on the phone on her front porch very loudly: 

“Okay, I know  the game will be on, but no, I am not putting a TV in the room during the reception.  There’s sports bars down the street – you all can just leave and go down there if you want….”

 

]— 4 —

This is a site to which I used to refer readers all the time: Aid to the Church in Need. It’s a good place to find projects to help and also provides helpful insight into the life of the Church around the world.

— 5 —

Edited – I miscopied the template and have been skipping #5 – thanks for noticing!!

Homeschooling is slowly getting rolling. We had a friend over on one day, and have had various other appointments, but next week looks clear. We’ve gotten going on math, and yesterday, he had his first good morning of “unschooling” – that is just reading and talking, and then recording what he’d read about. This won’t be a “comprehensive” education, but it will be…something.

— 6 —

The Jungle: It was my older son’s summer reading, so I joined in…the fun. Well.

On one level, it’s an “easy” read (for most of the book), because Sinclair was a journalist and tended to get right to the point and had great descriptive skills. It didn’t hurt that what he was describing was so vivid and visceral and the story of unrelenting misery so compelling, if…unrelenting.

For those of you who don’t know, The Jungle was the fruit of a couple of months Sinclair spent in Chicago in the early 20th century, examining the meatpacking industry and the lives of the immigrant workers in that industry. The focus of the story is an extended Lithuanian family and the young man who marries into that family, named Jurgis.

It’s all pretty devastating. The slaughterhouses and packing facilities are brutal and filthy. The workers’ lives are miserable and that misery is unrelenting. It’s all described quite vividly and, spoiler alert: No, things don’t get better. It’s just one thing after another.

Sinclair has a point in this, though. He was a strong socialist, and while most people associated The Jungle with the story told about the industry and the resultant formation of the FDA as a result of the outcry raised by the book, Sinclair’s main intention was to raise sympathy for the workers.  He was always a little distressed that the social activism inspired by the book was focused on the industry rather than the fundamental equation of American capitalism of the time – as he saw it – that made workers nothing more than cogs in a machine (or pigs on a killing line) for the purpose of enriching a relatively few.

It’s a mostly interesting book – until the last sixth, or so, when Jurgis discovers socialism and does so mostly by listening to speeches. Speeches that we are privileged to share in, also. Page. After page. After page. Thousands of words of socialist uplift, Comrade.

It’s important and interesting to encounter even that part of the book, in my mind, because of the spiritual associations. Jurgis experiences no less than a spiritual conversion that gives his life a transcendent meaning and binds him to others.

But still….it’s very boring.

As a whole, though, a book worth reading, even for young people. I quibble with a lot of school assignments, but I think this was a good choice as an introduction to the study, this year, of the second half of American history and literature. It vividly brings you into another world and lays out issues that gather up the promises of the first half of history that you studied last year then sets them in this new situation and demands you answer the question, What now? 

— 7 —

And, oh my heavens, speaking of immigration and American hopes and dreams – on a more positive note –  if this article has passed your various newsfeeds by, take a look and catch up. And then, if you’re like me, make the decision (again!) to stop the griping, be grateful, and jump back into this life business full-tilt, creating and giving what you can:

In 1956, blood spilled as Hungarians revolted against Soviet control. Hideg and his wife, a pianist, risked execution as they fled Budapest under cover of darkness. They sneaked past Russian infantry and escaped first to Austria and then New York City in early 1957. Hideg got a job as a janitor, and after work he’d race to Birdland and other Manhattan jazz clubs to see his heroes.

In 1961, he and his wife loaded up their old DeSoto and headed west, flat broke, stopping at bars along the way to play for food and gas money, Hollywood or bust….

 

….“I did not come to this country to be a burden on the state,” says Hideg, who has resisted signing up for many entitlements available to seniors.

He chose the musician’s life, he says, and has no regrets. If he has a message for others, Hideg tells me, it’s that doing something you love will serve you well. And another thing: Don’t hesitate to ask friends for help if you need it.

“He’s not a shy guy, but it’s not easy for him” to accept money, says Hideg’s longtime buddy Laszlo Cser, a retired musician and L.A. City College professor. “Lately he’s more willing to go along.”

Louis Kabok, a local bass player who knew Hideg in Hungary, fled at about the same time. He says his friend’s high spirits in the face of hardship and advancing age don’t appear to be an act.

“To tell you the truth, I never met another person in my life who has his kind of attitude,” says Kabok. “He just has an idea of the way he wants to live his life, and he’s doing it.”

Indeed, for all his troubles, Hideg glows. His silver hair is as thick as his Hungarian accent. His grin is young, timeless and broad, the grin of a man who’s in on a secret.

Whatever day it is, the weekend is coming soon, and Hideg lives for Friday and Saturday.

He can’t bang the skins in the quiet environs of his apartment building, so every Saturday, he stays drummer fit with a two-hour workout at Stein on Vine in Hollywood, the legendary music shop where he jams with gray-bearded buddies and it’s the 1950s all over again.

In the video attached to the story – worth a few minutes of your time – Mr. Hideg says, “I live alone…and I don’t have a family. But I am not lonely because I have my friends, I have God, I have my drums….when I play, I concentrate on the music. I don’t care about anything else…”

(The Go Fund Me campaign has raised a bunch for Mr. Hideg.)

 

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

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Last year, as part of our three weeks in Italy, we visited Ravenna.

 

There, in the Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia, is a wonderful mosaic of St. Lawrence. Above is my photograph, but you can find better ones elsewhere, such as this excellent site unpacking the iconography of St. Lawrence. 

From the Vatican website, a good article on today’s saint in the context of the permanent diaconate:

In his De Officiis (1, 41, 205-207) we have Ambrose’s particularly eloquent account of the martyrdom of St Lawrence. It was subsequently taken up by Prudentius and by St Augustine. Hence it passes to Maximus of Turin, St Peter Chrisologus and to Leo the Great before emerging again in some of the formularies of the Roman Sacramentals, the Missale Gothicumm and in the Caerimoniale Visigoticum (Bibliotheca Sanctorum, …..1538-1539).

Ambrose dwells, firstly, on the encounter and dialogue of Lawrence and Sixtus. He alludes to the distribution of the Church’s goods to the poor and ends by mentioning the grid-iron, the instrument of Lawrence’s torture, and remarks on the phrase which the proto-Deacon of the Roman Church addresses to his torturers: “assum est…versa et manduca” (cf. Bibliotheca Sanctorum …., col 1538-1539).

We shall dwell on the Ambrosian text of the De Officiis (Cap. 41,nn. 205-206-207), which is very moving in its intensity and strength of expression. Thus writes St Ambrose:

“St Lawrence wept when he saw his Bishop, Sixtus, led out to his martyrdom. He wept not because he was being let out to die but because he would survive Sixtus. He cried out to him in a loud voice: ‘Where are you going Father, without your son? Where do you hasten to, holy Bishop, without your Deacon? You cannot offer sacrifice

without a minister. Father, are you displeased with something in me? Do you think me unworthy? Show us a sign that you have found a worthy minister. Do you not wish that he to whom you gave the Lord’s blood and with whom you have shared the sacred mysteries should spill his own blood with you? Beware that in your praise your own judgment should not falter. Despise the pupil and shame the Master. Do not forget that great and famous men are victorious more in the deeds of their disciples than in their own. Abraham made sacrifice of his own son, Peter instead sent Stephen. Father, show us your own strength in your sons; sacrifice him whom you have raised, to attain eternal reward in that glorious company, secure in your judgment”.

In reply Sixtus says: “I will not leave you, I will not abandon you my son. More difficult trials are kept for you. A shorter race is set for us who are older. For you who are young a more glorious triumph over tyranny is reserved. Soon, you will see, cry no more, after three days you will follow me. It is fitting that such an interval should be set between Bishop and Levite. It would not have been fitting for you to die under the guidance of a martyr, as though you needed help from him. Why do want to share in my martyrdom? I leave its entire inheritance to you. Why do need me present? The weak pupil precedes the master, the strong, who have no further need of instruction, follow and conquer without him. Thus Elijah left Elisha. I entrust the success of my strength to you”.

This was the contest between them which was worthy of a Bishop and of a Deacon: who would be the first to die for Christ (It is said that in tragedy, the spectators would burst into applause when Pilade said he was Orestes and when Orestes himself declared that he was Orestes) the one who would be killed instead of Orestes, and when Orestes prevented Pilades from being killed in place of himself. Neither of these deserved to live for both were guilty of patricide. One because he had killed his father, the other because he had been an accomplice in patricide.) In the case of Lawrence, nothing urged him to offer himself as a victim but the desire to be a holocaust for Christ. Three days after the death of Sixtus, while the terror raged, Lawrence would be burned on the grid-iron: “This side is done, turn and eat”. With such strength of soul he conquered the flames of the fire” (Ambrose, De Officiis).

…..

The principle characteristic defining the Deacon in se, and his ministry, is that he is ordained for the service of charity. Martyrdom, which is a witness to the point of shedding one’s blood, must be considered an expression of greater love or charity. It is service to a charity that knows no limits. The ministry of charity in which the Deacon is deputed by ordination is not limited to service at table, or indeed to what former catechetical terminology called corporal works of mercy, nor to the spiritual works of mercy. The diaconal service of charity must include imitation of Christ by means of unconditional self-giving since he is the fruitful witness …… (cf Ap 1, 5:13; 14).

In the case of Lawrence, as St Ambrose explains, “no other desire urged him but that of offering himself to the Lord as a holocaust” (de Officiis, 1,41, n. 207). By means of the witness borne before his persecutors, it is evident that the diaconal ministry is not to be equated with that of service to one’s neighbour, understood or reduced solely to their material needs. Lawrence, in that act which expresses a greater love for Christ and which leads to his giving up his own life, also permits his tormentors, in a certain sense, to experience the Incarnate Word who, in the end, is the personal and common destiny of all mankind. This is a theological service of charity to which every Deacon must tend or, at least, be disposed to accept.   More

A good summary of his life from a site for deacons.

Again: A short an interesting article on the iconography of St. Lawrence:

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We never refused kindness which might lead to acquaintanceship….

As travel is a topic I’m interested in, as well as being an activity which prompts not a little soul-searching on my part, I found the end of Martineau’s account of her years-long journey in America quite fascinating and even rather moving. I’m going to just reprint the whole passage here – it’s long, but it will save you a click or two.

For previous entries on Martineau see here and here.)

Her way to these final considerations of the value of travel has begun in the graveyard – comparing the American graveyard to European cemeteries, which then leads her to reflect on journeys – mind you, when she speaks of “travel” she is not speaking of If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium – Bucket List Travel. She is speaking of long, slow journeys – slow because that is how one traveled in those days – during which one had ample time to experience new places with new friends.

While writing I have been struck by the strong resemblance between the
retrospect of travel from home and that of life from the cemetery. In
each contemplation the hosts of human beings who have been seen acting,
suffering, and meditating, rise up before the mind’s eye as in a kind of
judgment scene, except that they rise up, not to be judged, but to
instruct. The profit of travel is realized at home in the solitude of
the study, and the true meaning of human life (as far as its meaning can
become known to us here) is best made out from its place of rest. While
martineau retrosepct western travel2busy among strangers, one is carried away by sympathy and by prejudice
from the point whence foreign society can be viewed with anything like
impartiality; one cannot but hear the mutual criminations of parties;
one cannot but be perplexed by the mutual misrepresentations of
fellow-citizens; one cannot but sympathize largely with all in turn,
since there is a large mixture of truth in all views about which people
are strongly persuaded. It is only after sitting down alone at home that
the traveller can separate the universal truth from the partial error
with which he has sympathized, and can make some approximation towards
assurance as to what he has learned and what he believes. So it is in
the turmoil of life. While engaged in it, we are ignorantly persuaded,
and liable, therefore, to be shaken from our certainty; we are
disproportionately moved, and we sympathize with incompatibilities, so
as to be sure of disappointment and humiliation inflicted through our
best sensibilities. In the place of retrospect we may find our repose
again in contemplating our ignorance and weakness, and ascertaining the
conviction and strength which they have wrought out for us.

What is gained by living and travelling?

One of the most striking and even amusing results is the perception of
the transient nature of troubles. The thoughtful traveller feels
something like wonder and amusement at himself for being so depressed by
evils as he finds himself in the midst of long-idealized objects. He is
surprised at his own sufferings from hunger, cold, heat, and weariness;
and at his being only prevented by shame from passing some great object
unseen, if he has to rouse himself from sleep to look at it, or to
forego a meal for its sake. The next time he is refreshed, he wonders
how his troubles could ever so affect him; and, when at home, he looks
through the picture-gallery of his memory, the afflictions of past hours
would have vanished, their very occurrence would be denied but for the
record in the journal. The contemptible entries about cold, hunger, and
sleepiness stand, ludicrously enough, among notices of cataracts and
mountains, and of moral conflicts in the senates of nations. And so with
life. We look back upon our pangs about objects of desire, as if it were
the object and not the temper of pursuit which was of importance. We
look back on our sufferings from disease, from disappointment, from
suspense, in times when the great moral events of our lives, or even of
the age, were impending, and we disregarded them. We were mourning over
some petty loss or injury while a new region of the moral universe was
about to be disclosed to us; or fretting about our “roast chicken and
our little game at cards,” while the liberties of an empire were being
lost or won.

Worse than our own little troubles, probably, has been the fear and
sorrow of hurting others. One of the greatest of a traveller’s hardships
is the being aware that he must be perpetually treading on somebody’s
toes. Passing from city to city, from one group of families to another,
where the divisions of party and of sect, the contrariety of interests,
and the world of domestic circumstance are all unknown to him, he can
hardly open his lips without wounding somebody; and it makes him all the
more anxious if, through the generosity of his entertainers, he never
hears of it. No care of his own can save him from his function of
torturer. He cannot speak of religion, morals, and politics; he cannot
speak of insanity, intemperance, or gaming, or even of health, riches,
fair fame, and good children, without danger of rousing feelings of
personal remorse or family shame in some, or the bitter sense of
bereavement in others. Little or nothing has been said of this as one of
the woes of travelling; but, in my own opinion, this is the direction in
which the fortitude of the traveller is the most severely tried. Yet, in
the retrospect, it seems even good that we should have been obliged thus
to call the generosity and forbearance of our hosts into exercise. They
are, doubtless, benefited by the effort; and we may perhaps be gainers,
the direct operation of forbearance and forgiveness being to enhance
affection. The regard of those whom we have wounded may perhaps be
warmer than if we had never hurt them. It is much the same with men’s
mutual inflictions in life. None of us, especially none who are frank
and honest, can speak what we think, and act according to what we
believe, without giving pain in many directions. It is very painful, but
quite unavoidable. In the retrospect, however, we are able to smile on
the necessity, and to conclude that, as we have been willing to bear our
share of the wounding from others, and should, perhaps, have been sorry
if it had not happened, it is probable that others may have regarded us
and our inflictions in the same way.

Nothing is more conspicuous in the traveller’s retrospect than the fact
how little external possession has to do with happiness. As he wanders
back over city and village, plantation and prairie, he sees again care
on the brow of the merchant and mirth in the eyes of the labourer; the
soulless faces of the rich Shakers rise up before him, side by side with
the gladsome countenance of the ruined abolitionist. Each class kindly
pities the one below it in power and wealth; the traveller pities none
but those who are wasting their energies in the exclusive pursuit of
either. Generally speaking, they have all an equal endowment of the
things from which happiness is really derived. They have, in pretty
equal distribution, health, senses, and their pleasures, homes,
children, pursuits, and successes. With all these things in common, the
one point of difference in their respective amounts of possession of
more than they can at present eat, use, and enjoy, seems to him quite
unworthy of all the compassion excited by it; though the compassion,
having something amiable in it, is of a kindly use as far as it goes. In
a cemetery, the thoughtless are startled into the same perception. How
destitute are the dead in their graves! How naked is the spirit gone
from its warm housings and environs of luxuries! This is the first
thought. The next is, was it ever otherwise? Had these luxuries ever
anything to do with the peace of the spirit, except as affording a
pursuit for the employment of its energies? Is not as vigorous and
gladsome a mind to be found abroad in the fields, or singing at the
mill, as doing the honours of the drawing-room? and, if it were not so,
what words could we find strong enough for the cruelty of the decree
under which every human being is compelled to enter his grave solitary
and destitute? In the retrospect of the recent traveller in America, the
happiest class is clearly that small one of the original abolitionists;
men and women wholly devoted to a lofty pursuit, and surrendering for it
much that others most prize: and, in the retrospect of the traveller
through life, the most eminently blessed come forth from among all ranks
and orders of men, some being rich and others poor; some illustrious and
others obscure; but all having one point of resemblance, that they have2martineau retrosepct western travel
not staked their peace on anything so unreal as money or fame.

As for the worth of praise, a traveller cannot have gone far without
finding it out. He has been praised and blamed at every turn; and he
soon sees that what people think of him matters to themselves and not to
him. He applies this to himself, and finds confirmation. It is ludicrous
to suppose that what he thinks of this man and that, whose motives and
circumstances he can never completely understand, should be of lasting
importance to the subjects of his observation, while he feels it to be
very important to his own peace and state of temper that he should
admire as much and despise as little as reason will allow. That this is
not more felt and acted upon is owing to the confined intercourses of
the majority of men. If, like the traveller, they were for a long time
exposed to a contrariety of opinions respecting themselves, they would
arrive at the conviction which rises “by natural exhalation” from the
field of graves, that men’s mutual judgments are almost insignificant to
the objects of them, while immeasurably important to those who form
them. When we look about us upon this obelisk and that urn, what matter
the applauses and censures of the neighbours of the departed, in the
presence of the awful facts here declared, that he has lived and is
gone? In this mighty transaction between himself and his Maker, how
insignificant to him are the comments of beings between whom and himself
there could exist no complete understanding in this life! But there is
no overrating the consequences to himself of having lived with high or
low models before his eyes; in a spirit of love or a spirit of contempt;
in a process of generous or disparaging interpretation of human actions.
His whole future condition and progress may be affected by it….

The mysterious pain of partings presses upon the returned traveller and
the surviver with nearly equal force. I do not know whether this woe is
usually taken into the estimate of travellers when they are counting the
cost of their scheme before setting out; but I know that it deserves to
be. I believe that many would not go if they could anticipate the misery
of such partings as those which must be encountered in a foreign
country, in long dreary succession, and without more hope than in
parting with the dying. The chances of meeting again are small. For a
time grief sooths itself by correspondence; but this cannot last, as one
family group after another opens its arms to the stranger, and gives him
a home only that he must vacate it for another. The correspondence
slackens, fails, and the parties are to one another as if they were
dead, with the sad difference that there is somewhat less faith in each
other than if they were in circumstances in which it is physically
impossible that they could communicate. To the surviver of intercourse,
in either place of meditation, there remains the heartsoreness from the
anguish of parting; that pain which, like physical pain, takes us by
surprise with its bitterness at each return, and disposes us, at length,
to either cowardice or recklessness; and each of these survivers may be
conscious of some visitations of jealousy, jealousy lest the absent
should be learning to forget the past in new interests and connexions.

The strongest point of resemblance in the two contemplations of the
life which lies behind, is this; that a scene is closed and another is
opening. The term of existence in a foreign land, and the somewhat
longer term spent on this planetary island, are viewed as over; and the
fatigues, enjoyments, and perplexities of each result in an amount of
calm experience. The dead, it is hoped, are entering on a new region, in
which they are to act with fresh powers and a wiser activity. The
refreshed traveller has the same ambition. I have surveyed my
experience, and told my tale; and, though often visiting America in
thought, can act no more with reference to my sojourn there, but must
pass over into a new department of inquiry and endeavour. Friendships
are the grand gain of travel over a continent or through life; and these
may be carried forward into new regions of existence here, as we hope
they may be into the unexplored hereafter, to give strength and delight
to new exertions, and to unite the various scenes of our being by the
strongest ties we know.

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Well, after several months of dipping, a day or two of  immersion here and there and finally a stint of sustained reading, I have finished Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel.  What a delight.

I had heard of the 19th century writer and early sociologist, but didn’t know much. Then I listened to the episode of In Our Time dedicated to her and I was intrigued, mostly by the fact that she had taken an extended journey to the United States and written about it.

The fruit of that travel is in two works: Retrospect of Western Travel and the more topical Society in America. 

It’s too bad de Toqueville gets all the love, because Martineau offers just as much. Retrospect is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, an astonishing first-hand view of the United States in its early history which includes encounters with most the most eminent personages of the age, from Andrew Jackson to Emerson, from the Beechers to Garrison.

And she goes everywhere.  New England and the Middle Atlantic, all through the South "amy welborn"from Charleston to New Orleans and up to Kentucky, and throughout the Midwest. She covers everything, from a close reading of the political system, to social morays to intellectual and religious life. Her impressions of slavery are particularly acute and impassioned.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about volume 1 – go back and take a look, especially if you want to read about her irritation at this newfangled obsession called a rocking-chair. 

I highlighted so much in reading that I can just skim the surface of sharing what interested me, so skim I shall. Different points will strike different readers. What interests me in writing of this kind are the moments in which I see the present in the past – in which Martineau notices aspects of American society that are still a part of our makeup, in which she happens upon quirks or incidents that might still be familiar to us today. I’m also interested in observations she make that confound our impressions of the past. Don’t look for rhyme or reason in these quotes. I’m just going through what I highlighted in volume 2 – most recently read – as the moments struck me:

At a school program in Cincinnati (a city, by the way, she believed should be nation’s capitol.)

Many prizes of books were given by the gentlemen on the platform; and the ceremony closed with an address from the pulpit which was true, and in some respects beautiful; but which did not appear altogether judicious to those who are familiar with children’s minds. The children were exhorted to trust their teachers entirely; to be assured that their friends would do by them what was kindest. Now, neither children nor grown people trust, any more than they believe, because they are bid. Telling them to have confidence is so much breath wasted. If they are properly trained, they will unavoidably have this trust and confidence, and the less that is said about it the better. If not, the less said the better, too; for  confidence is then out of the question, and there is danger in making it an empty phrase. It would he well if those whose office it is to address children wore fully aware that exhortation, persuasion, and dissuasion are of no use in their case; and that there is immeasurable value in the opposite method of appeal. Make truth credible, and they will believe it: make goodness lovely, and they will love it: make holiness cheerful, and they will be glad in it: but remind them of themselves by threat, inducement, or exhortation, and you impair (if you do any thing) the force of their unconscious affections: try to put them upon a task of arbitrary self-management, and your words pass over their ears only to be forgotten.

(Her comments remind me of the present day in which we think if we just tell children and young people to have self-esteem and believe in themselves!  ….it will happen…)

She often comments on the generosity of Americans:

This account of our three first clays at Cincinnati will convey a sufficient idea of a stranger’s impressions of the place. There is no need to give a report of its charitable institutions and its commerce:  the details of the latter are well known to those whom they may concern; and in America, wherever men are gathered together, the helpless are aided, and the suffering relieved. 

However, she notes as well the “illiberality” of many Americans – by which she means prejudices, and right after this passage, she comments on anti-Catholicism. (Martineau was a Unitarian, and no fan of Catholic practices, but she was also committed to freedom of religion and expression. Although she does infer that one of the reasons that prejudice is bad is that it might just prompt the growth and strength of the object of prejudice….)

The Catholic religion spreads rapidly in many most of the recently-settled parts of the United States, and its increase produces an almost insane dread among some Protestants, who fail to see that no evils that the Catholic religion can produce in the present state of society can be so afflictive and dangerous as the bigotry by which it is proposed to put it down. The removal to Cincinnati of Dr. Beecher, the ostentation and virulent foe of the Catholics, has much quickened the spirit of alarm in that region. It is to be hoped  that Dr. Beecher and the people of Cincinnati will remember what has been the invariable consequence in America of public denunciations of assumed offences which the law does not reach; namely, mobbing.

To more prosaic topic – corn on the cob.

This day, I remember, we first tasted
green corn, one of the most delicious of vegetables, and by some
preferred to green peas. The greatest drawback is the way in which it is
necessary to eat it. The cob, eight or ten inches long, is held at both
ends, and, having been previously sprinkled with salt, is nibbled and
sucked from end to end till all the grains are got out. It looks awkward
enough: but what is to be done? Surrendering such a vegetable from
considerations of grace is not to be thought of.

On New England education, class, and a contrast with Old England:

Their common and high schools, their lyceums and cheap colleges, are exciting
and feeding thousands of minds, which in England would never get beyond
the loom or the ploughtail. If few are very learned in the villages of
Massachusetts, still fewer are very ignorant; and all have the power and
the will to invite the learning of the towns among them, and to
remunerate its administration of knowledge. The consequence of this is a
state of village society in which only vice and total ignorance need
hang the head, while (out of the desolate range of religious bigotry)
all honourable tastes are as sure of being countenanced and respected as
all kindly feelings are of being reciprocated. I believe most
enlightened and virtuous residents in the villages of New-England are
eager to acknowledge that the lines have fallen to them in pleasant
places.

But she has harsh words for Harvard College:

The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those
of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic
college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of
pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her
principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she
will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a
considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. [Almost 200 years later…has anything changed??!] She has a
great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in
comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will
therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls
are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly
salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed
to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent
and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and
more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise,
whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the
time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer
with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic
classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to
work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is
made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle
and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but
“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and
hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest
orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new
ones.

When I was at Boston the state of the University was a subject of great
mourning among its friends.

Martineau was hard of hearing, and used an ear horn. She visited schools for the visually and hearing impaired in a few cities and observed:

The benevolence which undertook the care of this class of unfortunates,
when their condition was esteemed hopeless, has, in many cases, through
a very natural delight at its own success, passed over into a new and
opposite error, particularly in America, where the popular philosophy of
mind comes in aid of the delusion. From fearing that the deaf and dumb
had hardly any capacities, too many of their friends have come to
believe them a sort of sacred, favoured class, gifted with a keener
apprehension, a more subtile reason, and a purer spirituality than
others, and shut out from little but what would defile and harden their
minds.

Martineau wrote extensively on what she saw in the slave-holding South, but also gives an interesting view of the impact of abolitionist activism in New England, and includes this very wise and still very true observation:

The same delusion (if it be mere delusion) is
visible here that is shared by all persons in power, who cannot deny
that an evil exists, but have not courage to remove it; a vague hope
that “fate, or Providence, or something,” will do the work which men are
created to perform; men of principle and men of peace, like the
abolitionists; victims, not perpetrators of violence.

And what strikes her as one of America’s most telling features?

The only times when I felt disposed to quarrel with the inexhaustible
American mirth was on the hottest days of summer. I liked it as well as
ever; but European strength will not stand more than an hour or two of
laughter in such seasons. I remember one day when the American part of
the company was as much exhausted as the English. We had gone, a party
martineau retrosepct western travelof six, to spend a long day with a merry household in a country village;
and, to avoid the heat, had performed the journey of sixteen miles
before ten o’clock. For three hours after our arrival the wit was in
full flow; by which time we were all begging for mercy, for we could
laugh no longer with any safety. Still, a little more fun was dropped
all round, till we found that the only way was to separate, and we all
turned out of doors. I cannot conceive how it is that so little has been
heard in England of the mirth of the Americans; for certainly nothing in
their manners struck and pleased me more. One of the rarest characters
among them, and a great treasure to all his sportive neighbours, is a
man who cannot take a joke.

Americans love their enthusiasms as well, and for Martineau, these enthusiasms, however nutty they might be,  point to something deeper: an imaginative spirit.

When Spurzheim was in America, the great mass of society became
phrenologists in a day, wherever he appeared; and ever since itinerant
lecturers have been reproducing the same sensation in a milder way, by
retailing Spurzheimism, much deteriorated, in places where the
philosopher had not been. Meantime the light is always going out behind
as fast as it blazes up round the steps of the lecturer. While the world
of Richmond and Charleston is working at a multiplication of the fifteen
casts (the same fifteen or so) which every lecturer carries about, and
all caps and wigs are pulled off, and all fair tresses dishevelled in
the search after organization, Boston has gone completely round to the
opposite philosophy, and is raving about spiritualism to an excess which
can scarcely be credited by any who have not heard the Unknown Tongues.
If a phrenological lecturer from Paris, London, or Edinburgh should go
to Boston, the superficial, visible portion of the public would wheel
round once more, so rapidly and with so clamorous a welcome on their
tongues, that the transported lecturer would bless his stars which had
guided him over to a country whose inhabitants are so candid, so
enlightened, so ravenous for truth. Before five years are out, however,
the lecturer will find himself superseded by some professor of animal
magnetism, some preacher of homœopathy, some teacher who will
undertake to analyze children, prove to them that their spirits made
their bodies, and elicit from them truths fresh from heaven. All this is
very childish, very village-like; and it proves anything rather than
originality in the persons concerned. But it does not prove that there
is not originality in the bosom of a society whose superficial movement
is of this kind; and it does not prove that national originality may not
arise out of the very tendencies which indicate that it does not at
present exist.

The Americans appear to me an eminently imaginative people. The
unprejudiced traveller can hardly spend a week among them without being
struck with this every day. At a distance it is seen clearly enough that
they do not put their imaginative power to use in literature and the
arts; and it does certainly appear perverse enough to observers from the
Old World that they should be imitative in fictions (whether of the pen,
the pencil, stone, or marble), and imaginative in their science and
philosophy, applying their sober good sense to details, but being
sparing of it in regard to principles. This arbitrary direction of their
imaginative powers, or, rather, its restriction to particular
departments, is, I believe and trust, only temporary. As their numbers
increase and their society becomes more delicately organized; when,
consequently, the pursuit of literature, philosophy, and art shall
become as definitely the business of some men as politics and commerce
now are of others, I cannot doubt that the restraints of imitation will
be burst through, and that a plenitude of power will be shed into these
departments as striking as that which has made the organization of
American commerce (notwithstanding some defects) the admiration of the
world, and vindicated the originality of American politics in theory and
practice.

Finally, she has an interesting section on “originals” in America:

There must be many local and professional oddities in a country like
America, where individuals fill a larger space in society, and are less
pressed upon by influences, other than local and professional, than in
Old World communities. A judge in the West is often a remarkable
personage to European eyes…..

….Originals who are so in common circumstances, through their own force of
soul, ruling events as well as being guided by them, yield something far
better than amusement to the observer. Some of these, out of almost
every class, I saw in America, from the divine and statesman down to the
slave.

Martineau ends her book with a remarkable reflection on travel itself, which I’ll share in the next post. 

 

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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.

amywelborn17

 

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. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) 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.

amy-welborn6

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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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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