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Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: March 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land Newsletter: March 2009 - check-out my new blog where I'm posting about my travels around Central America, March-May, 2009:

See a few new photos from the Worldschool Travel Tour of Mexico, Oct. 2008 taken by a friend we made while travelling in Oaxaca: Worldschool Travel Tour: Mexico, Oct. 08 Photos.

Read an interview of me by the travel site

Dearest Readers,
Remember how I said I decided to not go to Guatemala this winter after all? That's an example of me still not knowing myself quite well enough: I am now writing to you from Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras famous for world-class diving and snorkeling among coral reefs and whale sharks.


I landed in Guatemala City on Wednesday, March 11th and went straight to Antigua where I stayed for a week studying at a Spanish school and learning a lot (about Spanish and about school): An Unschooler/Worldschooler Goes to Spanish School).

But before that on Sunday, March 15th as part of an early Easter/"Semana Santa" celebration I saw a procession with many people dressed in purple robes carrying floats, playing music, and walking over and scattering unbelievable "alfombras" (carpets of colored saw dust, flowers, plastic figurines, fruits and vegetables, and all sorts of amazingly creative art) made just hours before.

I really encourage you to check-out the blog post about that Semana Santa procession with photos of the breathtaking and sometimes very funny alfombras: Pre-Semana Santa Procession with Alfombras.

I also had the bizarre opportunity to ride on the back of a police motorcycle to get a good view of Antigua from up one of the many mountains around the city that I posted about: View of Antigua from theback of a Police Motorcycle.

Then I went on to Honduras where I first spent a night in San Pedro Sula which is the second largest city and has a very bad reputation for crime and ugliness. But I slept in a very nice neighborhood, visited the Guamilito Market, had some wonderful baleadas (wheat flour tortillas filled with your choice of many things: I had it with beans, sweet fried plantains, and delicious cream), and had some great chats with locals: First Week in Honduras.

Then I spent a week in the beach town of Tela where I enjoyed being around friendly Garifuna people who are a mix of native islanders of the Caribbean and African. And I went on a tour through a national park where I ate some termites, saw and heard numerous howler monkeys (they make a big noise for how small they are) and did some snorkeling in turquoise colored waters with bright little fish and a large white spiky thing.

Since Tela, I've been just chilling on Utila. But I plan on going snorkeling tomorrow to see around the island and maybe catch a glimpse and even swim with (but not touch) the prize of the island: a whale shark (they only eat tuna and smaller things, people actually find them by looking for jumping tuna).

Semana Santa seems to include many weeks before Easter but the main one is coming up next and I'm not sure where I'll be! I may stay here where it'll be pretty exciting/crazy like most of Central America, or I may go with a friend to Costa Rica where things are mas tranquilo for Semana Santa.


Those are the fun things, what about the challenges and me changing my mind about travelling this winter?

Honestly something started to come over me. What started as a slight inclination to travel became a voracious hunger. Leading the three week Worldschool Travel Tour around Mexico in October was wonderful, but I used to think I SHOULD continue doing my own exploring: now I think I NEED to. It really felt like there was some sort of beast inside of me who needed to travel again.

In spite of all this, that beast was scared away during my first morning in Guatemala! While eating a lovely free breakfast at my hostel I talked to a Dutch woman who had been travelling in Central America for 6 months. Nothing had happened to her but from the stories she heard she never wanted to go back to Guatemala and would not recommend it to her friends. Hearing that and the specific stories made me wonder why I was here at all and how I could have even considered leading a travel tour here.

I hate to admit I was kinda scared to leave the hostel that morning! That was ridiculous because Antigua is perfectly safe during the day and still pretty safe at night. I definitely got over that but it has been a constant struggle for me to be cautious but at the same time not paranoid during my time in both Guatemala and Honduras. I continue to hear first hand stories of expert pick-pocketing and muggings at loaded gun point.

I keep hearing from people that it's been getting worse in Guatemala. And the Dutch woman told me my first specific stories of rape and murder. That's of course what really disturbed me. But in the end it seems the situation is as I already heard: rape and murder of foreigners is rare and theft is common.

Again, it's a balance of accepting those terrible things can happen anywhere and at the same time doing all you can to prevent them happening to you and those you care about.

Of course, for me I'm not just thinking about myself: I'm also thinking about the people who might come on my tours, especially because I already had the experience of us getting mugged on the Worldschool Travel Tour to Mexico October, 2008.

I mentioned that some things definitely didn't go as planned and were challenging on that trip but didn't go into specifics. None of us were physically harmed but we were threatened at knife point and lost some money and all three of our cameras with our photos.

I felt terrible about it happening and I was scared about whether or not anyone would trust me to lead a trip again. It was the first time anything like that happened to me in all my years of travelling and while I would have preferred it happen when I wasn't in charge of some young people it was definitely a good learning experience.

I made sure the people who were seriously interested in the Guatemala trip knew about it happening and the danger involved in travel in Guatemala but I didn't tell the story publicly until the Unschooler Winter Water park Gathering in Ohio this February. It felt great to share it and people were understanding and supportive.

There was also an unschooling mom who has travelled and lived in many countries, some quite dangerous, who said: "So what actually happened? You got your cameras stolen? Some very experienced travellers get their cameras stolen." That was very nice to hear and have acknowledged.

Still, it was a disturbing experience for us all and an avoidable one in our case: we took a shortcut to the Monte Alban Ruins, on top of a mountain over Oaxaca City, that left us isolated. Someone recommended this route to us but we now know we have to notice if a path is isolated, completely avoid those paths (esp. ones that lead to popular tourist destinations), and not always follow people's advice (the man working on the bus who gave us the advice was probably working with the two men who robbed us).

We also learned we need to back-up our photos regularly and remember how our own safety is far more important even if you haven't backed anything up. The main thing when you're being mugged is not to resist at all.

In spite of this Hannah still said she was surprised how nice every other person in Mexico was. That's the challenge: being aware of the few who could rob or harm you and remembering the kindness of everyone else. Mexico and Central America and full of such warm hearted people with a few robbers thrown in there.

The nice thing about leading a trip to Japan is that I'm not at all worried about our physical safety: we'll still be cautious but I think it's safer travelling in Japan than the U.S. But there's a richness to Latin America that I still really want to share with people so I'm thinking about if, how, and when I'd lead another tour around here.

I'm perfectly willing to stop or skip certain things if the risks seem too great for myself or others. But there are risks involved in everything including always staying at home in our comfort zones. Part of that risk is never really being challenged; never growing; never really living; never knowing.

May you be safe, dear readers, and also take the risks you need to take in order to fully live your life.

Yours truly,

p.s. Here in Utila I happened to run into a very nice Canadian woman who we made friends with at our hostel in Oaxaca, Mexico and was with us when we got mugged. Luckily they didn't get her camera and I finally got some great photos she took while we were travelling together. There's fun photos of us on a monument (sadly, right before we were mugged) and of a hilarious little clown knicknamed "Chilequiles". You can see them here: Worldschool Travel Tour: Mexico, Oct. 08 Photos.