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Islands in the stream. That is where we were. Nowhere in between.

Whenever I think of reunions, I immediately think of the opening scene in Love Actually – the movie I force the Husband to watch every December. Because there really isn’t a happier place than the arrivals section at an airport. All of a sudden those stiff aeroplane breakfast eggs are a thing of the past as hordes of groggy looking people meet up with their friends, family, lovers and the driver with the ‘Mr Von Hoogenboesem 4 pax’ sign.

A week after we said goodbye to my Brother, the Brother-in-Law – who lives in Canada – arrived in Mexico to join us on our grand adventure for a couple of weeks. We were so excited about his arrival, that I decorated a packet of churros with birthday candles. (Sometimes, it’s just not worth it to go into the details). The Husband went to pick him up at the airport, while I decorated the churros. Big hugs, bigger tears (on the inside) and lots and lots of beer ensued. We talked about EVERYTHING, including the weather, because the Brother-in-Law was as fair skinned as an English lady after the Canadian winter. We also talked about our plans for the days ahead, which involved the following:

  1. Catching a ferry to Isla Mujeres
  2. Doing absolutely nothing on Isla Mujeres
  3. Catching a ferry back to Cancun

 

La Isla Bonita

Super cheesy headline, but Isla Mujeres sure is beautiful and super chilled. We’ve been to lots and lots of islands during our trip, but Isla Mujeres was special. It wasn’t as busy or commercialised as the other islands, the swimming was easy and the Brother-in-Law treated us to three nights in a fancy hotel – imagine that: our very own bathroom, white sheets and a bar fridge. How luxurious!

The island also has this really cool vibe. Giant murals adorn the walls on every street, the sandy beaches are as white as the Brother-in-Law’s inner arm and all the rich and annoying people were partying on their yachts away from the beaches, so that was awesome. We snorkelled, we drank beer, we watched schools of dolphins cruise past our balcony and we were merry.

Being the intrepid travellers that we are, we also wanted to see what lies on the other side of the island (actually, we knew what was on the other side – it was a lighthouse at Ponta Sur). So we hired some bicycles to go and see for ourselves. We were the cool cats on the block, with our snapback caps and gangster bikes, me slow poking behind the boys and cruising along the potholed streets of the island.

Did we get to Ponta Sur? Uhm. No. We had to return the bikes before the end of the day, and my slow poking wasn’t really helping. So while the Brother-in-Law scooted ahead, the Husband and I cruised past an interesting variety of holiday homes. Big ones, small ones, scruffy ones, empty ones and one filled with lots of snotty nosed children and chickens.

Long story short, he almost got to the other side of the island. And it wasn’t like he had to collect a pot of gold or something. It was just a short adventure fuelled by that lovely curiosity of a traveller.

We went to Isla Mujeres to do nothing. And that we did. To waste time just being, really is precious.

What’s that you asked? Photos? But of course! What’s more, I’ve even edited a video! Lucky you!

 

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Oh hi there esplanade. Fancy a sunset walk with me and my hombres? Of course you do.
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Isla Mujeres has the most amazing collection of wall art.

 

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All these lines! Love it.
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Oh look! More wall art!

 

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Easy island living. Yes. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Small things. Big rewards

There is a direct, heartstring-strumming connection between the smallness of things and that gasp of sure astonishment it usually leads to. I recently gave birth to a small baby, and every morning, afternoon and during the wee hours of the morning I’m still amazed by the amazingness of this tiny little human. It sure is something.

But I digress (and gush), as sleep deprived mothers often do.

So back to my original point. Small cups of espressos are – and let’s be honest here – way better than milky lattes. And as far as the gastronomical blessings of my spirit country Mexico goes, tacos really are little morsels of heaven.

The same goes for small towns – they’re like those nice bite-sized biscuits you get with a coffee. They’re so good, you sometimes order another cuppa just to get another biscuit.

A while ago (I was still pre-waddle pregnant), a friend invited me to McGregor for the weekend. She’s there on a story and doesn’t want to drink alone on the stoep after sunset. Drinking alone is okay. But there’s something sad about drinking alone in a small Western Cape town after the day called last rounds.

‘Sure’, I said, while preparing my nose for another weekend of sniffing wine as opposed to drinking it.

And so we packed our toothbrushes, three lamb chops and a box of rusks and left Cape Town for the weekend. Through the Huguenot tunnel, past the landscapes of the Montagu pass, across the belly of Robertson and voila! You’ve arrived.

A bite-sized town for a bite-sized weekend

McGregor is a one street town. We arranged to meet my friend at Temenos Gardens, which is just down the main street. And snoozing in the middle of the street, right in front of the gardens, a black dog – baking in the half-baked winter sun, waiting to reach his daily quota of belly rubs. With hands smelling like dusty street dog, we went inside to look for my friend. The black dog took the lead. And with wagging tails, we entered the gardens.

Hello tranquilo

Temenos Gardens was created for the sole purpose of acceptance. Everyone is welcome. Every religion, human and spirit in search for some peace and quiet. Even the neighbour’s cat left the comforts of his home and moved in. This massive garden pays homage to the world’s beliefs through little shrines, quotes or meditation areas around every corner. And for the bookish, there’s a librarianless library. Go on, have a read or a quick browse. The doors are never locked and the books are always keen for a conversation. 

The artist, the wine maker and the cinema operator

Every small town features at least one of the above mentioned. And if you’re really lucky, it’ll even throw in a candlestick maker* as well. McGregor has all three. As well as a Top of the Pops go-go dancer from way back when, an olive farmer, a German grappa distiller and a donkey sanctuary. All of this, neatly packaged in a one-street town. 

The story of the artist is the quintessence of McGregor. Painter Edna Fourie traded her city shoes for the rustic nothingness of the Renosterveld just outside McGregor, where she paints and breathes. And this open sky simplicity speaks volumes in her work. Bemind winemaker Ilse Schutte cashed in on her dream of having her own wine cellar. She ended her tenure as wine maker at the big wine estates and moved to McGregor. Today she produces a Shiraz that will make – in the words of Mick Jagger – a grown man cry. Her Bemind Shiraz smells like the leathery study of an old, rich gentleman with a fondness for literature, female tennis players and many a glass of wine.

And you know how you always rock up at a place and think ‘My oh my, let’s give up everything and open our own beach bar/yoga retreat/taco stand right here, right this moment’? Olive farmer, Annalien van der Colff and her husband did exactly that. Passing through McGregor, they fell in love with the town and the farm that was – by complete coincidence – for sale, and decided on the spot that this is it. They’re going to break up with city life and start a new life in McGregor. And they chose olives to make it happen.

The story of the cinema operator is my favourite. Why? Because he showed us a 10 minute clip of Prince Igor in the poppy fields on an unsuspecting Sunday morning? Maybe. Or because they decided it would be a good idea buy the slightly odd Moroccanesque house on the corner of a street and turn it into a cinema and live music hall? Definitely.

The aptly named Wahnfried** is the home of all cultural affairs in McGregor. In the mood for a classic movie? Go and take your seat in the Wahnfried. How about some live music? The 1873 Bechstein grand piano is very eager to share some notes with you.

And now I’m done with my story

But not with McGregor. This town will definitely see me again. Actually, we’re going back in a month’s time. Yes.

Before I go, and should you go, remember to go to these places as well

Tanagra is a definite must-visit. They produce a range of Marc (also known as Grappa, distilled from fermented grape skins) and Eau de Vie (distilled from fermented fruit). Now, the Husband (who is coincidentally also named Marc) tasted a rather fetching amount of Marc samples at 10am. The rest of his day was a hoot.

Lord’s Winery is the perfect spot to wave the sun goodbye after a long day of small town endeavours. This wine estate is just outside McGregor and it really is the most serene spot. They make a mean Pinot Noir as well.

You simply cannot visit McGregor without scratching a donkey behind his ear. Eseltjierus Donkey Sanctuary is the home of many a rescued donkey. Ask for a tour, the guides are always more than happy to introduce you to the donkeys and share their stories.

Oh yes. And give Mira a call if you need a bed. There are loads of really nice accommodation options available. You really have no excuse.

*Not too sure about the presence of a candlestick maker. Will have to get back to you on this.

**If you chop the word Wahnfried in half, you get madness (wahn) and peace (fried), which fits this vernacularly obscure space like a glove.

 

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When visiting one of the meditation areas at Temenos, remember to wear your unholey socks. Shoes aren’t allowed.
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A door and a quote en route to the meditation circle.
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Way better than Bree street in Cape Town, me thinks. Plus, you’ll always find parking here.
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The decor at Bemind Wyne is quite rad. Like this table.
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Really. How do you not want to be here?
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Dearest Carla on a tortoise photo op binge at Annelien’s Rhebokskraal Olive Farm.
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Love donkeys. Always have. Always will.

 

The day we paid 500pesos for a hammock

One doesn’t just go to Mexico and not buy anything. Guatemala’s fabrics and bright baby onesies were hard enough to resist, and by the time we got to Mexico my suppressed capitalist tendencies couldn’t take it anymore. I had to buy something pretty. Not shampoo or cooking oil to last us 2 weeks. Something we don’t need, but want.

So we bought a three sleeper hammock (in black, of course) for 500pesos. Now I’m really awful at bargaining, because everybody (including the hammock salesman) has to eat. But I only had 500pesos in my wallet and, being the non-bargainer that I am, told the salesman that I can’t give him that little for something that is twice as expensive (and some more – the original price was 1200pesos).

So we walked out with said hammock and me apologising all the way. The Brother on the other hand, disappeared into the touristy knick knack shop next door and came out with the world’s biggest sombrero on his head. He paid a ridiculous amount for something that one can only wear at your distant cousin’s Mexican-themed housewarming party. And then nobody else will be allowed in the same room because that hat is just so darn humongous.

So we forced him to wear the sombrero the whole day. And that was our first 5 minutes in Tulum.

Things that are in Tulum, except for sombreros and hammocks.

– Amazing Beaches;

– Two for one cocktail specials on the Amazing Beaches;

– Ruins and bars (related and unrelated places of interest – it just depends on how hammered you get at the bars);

– More cenotes than I have guts;

– A seafood restaurant that is hands down the best in Mexico.

 

Let’s start with the Amazing Beaches

Tulum’s beaches are the stuff that screensavers are made off. They stretch from here to way way way over there, and the sand has the afterglow of a honeymoon. It’s amazing. The water is all turquoise and no action – perfect for drifting around for hours on end.

There isn’t a beach close to the town of Tulum, so you have to cycle there or grab a taxi. It’s about an 8km cycle, but if you’re cruising on a cruiser bike with the sun on your back, you’ll just never want to stop.

The one beach we frequented every day had this quaint little beach bar with one waiter and a barman. You know when people say they just want to bum out of the rat race  and become beach bums for the rest of their lives? Those boys are living that kind of life my friend, and they’re living it well.

So in support of their beach bum spirit and two for one cocktail specials, we ordered Piña Coladas every single blissful day. And because we tipped him before he went off to make our drinks, he made them exxtra strong – and then you really only need one. Trust me.

Another picturesque thing those beaches are good for, is sunrises. So the one morning we got up super early, saddled up our bikes and hit the road to catch the first rays. It was dark as night when we rode down the street and the town was still snoring in unison. We turned a corner, and as we cycled past the local taqueria we saw two taco makers, grooving to super loud reggaeton while making the town’s tacos with this industrial looking taco press. That unexpected glimpse into real life Mexico made me smile all the way through my groggy morning self.

When we got to the beach, we felt like we were doing something illegal because we were the only ones there. And by ‘we’, I mean the Husband. The whole time he was worried that we might look dodgy (to the crowd of nobody that was wondering what our intentions were), and after going for a swim with the Brother, he was worried that we might look like illegal border jumpers swimming to Mexico from I don’t know where.

Yes, dear reader. That sudden burst of paranoia did not make sense that morning, and it still doesn’t.

So we waited for the sun, while being eaten up alive by mosquitos. And when the sun eventually poked its big head out of the Caribbean sea, it went for the comfort of a blanket of  clouds. So we took a selfie and gave ourselves a pat on the back for getting up so early.

The cycle back was amazing though. We peddled through the foresty bit of Tulum just as all the birds were beginning to wake up. My oh my, it sure was pretty.

Ruins, bars and the connection between the two

We went to see the ruins. It was pretty cool. And even though I’m a massive fan of the Mayans and all the mysteries that surround them, after you third or fourth ruin they all start to look the same. So, that was that. There’s a little cove that’s only accessible via the ruins, and we ended up playing in the water until they kicked us out.

We also went to a bar to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. It was pretty neat – there was a musician with a sombrero bigger than The Brother’s, a woman wearing a twirly dress with a red rose in her hair (just like in the old movies) and a bar full of really drunk, really happy, people.

But we always tend to find ourselves on the periphery. I know loads of travellers who would go out to a bar, make friends, get matching tattoos and post pics on Facebook with captions like ‘best nite evurrr with these guyz’ and ‘4am at the police station lol’. See, that’s just not us. Not that we don’t want a best nite evurrr, we’re just not cool enough. And that’s also okay.

So the three of us drank rounds and rounds of cheap tequila, walked to the square to watch a mariachi band whereafter I got a bad case of the hiccups (which was our cue to waddle slowly back to our hostel). And might I just say – drinking cheap tequila with my two favourite hombres, definitely qualifies as a best nite evurrr.

The next morning my head was in ruins.

Stories about cenotes

Now I already told you about my first Mexican cenote experience where I, a grown woman, waited with the rest of the 5 year olds at the shallow end of the water. But, in Tulum I actually ventured deeper into these chilly sinkholes – armed with a life jacket of course.

The Gran Cenote is, excuse the cheese, a grand adventure. One gets to snorkel with freshwater turtles in water so clear, it actually looks like you’re floating on air. True story. You also swim through a bat cave, and when you get to the other side, you get attacked by mosquitos the moment you poke your head out of the water. Typical.

I remember thinking to myself, while trying to turn around in my life jacket so I could float on my back to look at the bats, that I need to take a mental picture of that specific moment – the water, the turtles, the bats and me – in Mexico.

Listen up – if you don’t travel, you should start to. It changes a person.

The Brother went diving at Dos Ojos and Cenote Angelita, and as a diver with a crazy love for coral and its inhabitants, he was completely blown away by the beauty of cruising through the tunnels and crystal clear water of Tulum’s cenotes. Post-dive and pre-tequila, he told us a couple of crazy stories about him squeezing through a tunnel for what felt like hours – with no turning back and very very little moving space.

Cenote Angelita is famous for this misty cloud phenomenon mid-water. A hydrogen sulfate haze is formed at the meeting place between fresh water and salty water. They call it ‘halocline’, but rather click here to read the correct description. Remember, these stories were told pre-tequila.

Hands up for the best seafood in Mexico hands down

We’ve had a lot of bad seafood in Mexico, but the best by far is at El Camello. It’s tasty. It’s real. And it doesn’t taste like the soles of your hiking boots. Order the calamari and light a candle for Neptune – it is beyond delicious.

That’s Tulum. You should go.

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The Hat featuring The Brother. NASA definitely picked it up on their radars.
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Hey! Just look at us three. Happy as clams and clammy as tequila salt.
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We all got a turn to wear the Sombrero Satellite. This is me doing a Mexican standoff (with myself) on a swing.
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What did I tell you. Pretty as a screensaver.
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#selfishselfie
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Waiting for the sun to make its appearance. The dark hue is the swarm of mosquitos that surrounded us.
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The Brother and I. It was pretty cool.
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The Gran Cenote. And a Mexican family.
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The Bearded Cenote Snorkeler having a gran’ old time.
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One gets to make all types of friends in Mexico.
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Fish soup at El Camillo and tucked away in the corner the calamari I bragged about. #yum
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On our way to our next destination. The Husband with his 25peso haircut and the Brother trying to get away with not wearing The Sombrero.

 

No man’s an island

To travel = to see brand new things every single day. A new bed, a new grocery store (or hut) and a handful of new people. Like the local dive shop guy who repeats the same tip* on dealing with mosquito bites (and then realising that he’s in fact not the dive shop guy but just a crazy guy who hangs out at the dive shop).

Or the Asian shop owner who rings up your order with a Belizean Creole twang. There’s also the German hostel owner who reminded me of Annie Lennox and the mama who sells Johnny cakes prepared by her Hispanic chef.

You take from these people, you eat their food and you sleep in their beds. Every single day. And sometimes you just walk past them, but you will remember them for the rest of your travelling days. One such memory is the little girl with a head full of beaded braids who walked past us in Belize City shouting ‘Hello there white people!’ Her mom sniggered, and we did too. I still do, actually.

My favourite part of all this newness is when you accidentally peek into a layer of society you never know existed. Like the Mennonites.

According to Wikipedia, the Mennonites is an Anabaptist religious group with members from different ethnic backgrounds, but also a religious denomination and ethnic group >insert confused expression here<. Basically, it’s a group of people who left Europe during the 16th century because they believed that only adults could decide whether to be baptised or not. Back in the days that point of view got a lot of people in trouble, so they left Europe and settled as farmers and carpenters in different countries across the globe. Like Belize.

So while we waited for a bus to take us to the Mexican border, we saw a couple of Mennonite families at the bus station. The tall men and boys, dressed in denim overalls, checked shirts and straw hats were waiting for the bus next to the long dresses of their mothers and sisters. Quiet, subdued and at home amidst the rowdy bright souls of the Caribbean. And I thought to myself “this is why I travel.” To see new things, unexpected things and things that are so out of place and at home at the same time.

The world is really big, and even if you travel every single day of your life, you’ll never really know it all.

Onwards and upwards

Let’s move along, before my introspectiveness gets the better of me. So Murphy’s Law of ‘Trying to Travel on a Schedule’ sticked out its long hairy leg and tripped us. Our trip from Belize City to Bacalar, Mexico was supposed to take us say, 5 hours. It didn’t.

We were stuck on a chicken bus for the better part of the day. As one would say in Creole ‘Wi no reech deh kwik kwik.’

If the driver drove any slower, we would have gone backwards. However, that was still manageable. What wasn’t, was the happy but drunk rasta at the back of the bus slurring insults at the slow poke bus driver and spilling rum all over my only clean shirt. Actually, that was also fine because it was funny for the first 10 minutes.

The bus that left the bus station looong after our bus departed eventually caught up with us. Then I actually considered to ask the rasta man for a sip of his lukewarm rum.

We got to the border, and for the sake of brevity, here’s a bullet list of things that happened:

1. We had a polite fight with the immigration official because he only gave us a 30 day visa;

2. I completed the wrong section of my lengthy visa document and had to queue again for what felt like hours (it was probably 10 minutes);

3. Customs wanted to check my bags for large wads of cash and narcotics;

4. Due to numbers 1, 2 and 3, Mr Slow Poke Bus Driver took off and left us at the border.

Stuck. That’s about it

Usually, one can easily walk across a border. With one foot in front of the other and bright eyes filled with adventure. But not when you want to go from Belize to Mexico. When I asked the friendly customs guy who checked my bag where the pedestrian crossing into Mexico is, he just shook his head. The customs guard also shook her head. And after a lot of shaking and not really getting anywhere, we were told that you can’t cross the border on foot. Seeing that Mr Slow Poke Bus Driver suddenly sped off into the sunset, we were stuck.

The best (and only) thing to do in such a case is just to hang around. Drink what’s left of your water, and hang around. Better days or a bus driver with empty seats is bound to come along.

The moment we were at one with being stuck, another chicken bus came along. And wouldn’t you know – it had empty seats.

The bus dropped us off at the side of the road in Chetumal, and after waiting for an hour for the bus to Bacalar, we took a taxi. But we had to wait for the taxi to fill up.

Bottom line 

To travel is to give over to slow poke drivers and grumpy immigration guys, to buses that disappear or never arrive. To smell (unwillingly) like rum and suffer from bus-bum-cramps. To sit next to conservative European farmers and rowdy Rastas. And to buy 2litres of Sol beer to go with your first Mexican sunset.

*How to deal with a gazillion mosquito bites: Just buy a bottle of rubbing alcohol and get rubbing. It really works. However, do not attempt to use rubbing alcohol as a fire lighter.It doesn’t work. 

Picha taim!

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Our early morning departure from Caye Caulker. That’s my brother walking next to me. 🙂
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En route to Mexico. See that guy way at the back with the white hat? That’s the rum-drinking-insult-swinging rasta.
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#mexicanborderselfie

 

Breezee in Belizee.

There’s nothing like a good rhyme to kick off a blog post about a country where we almost got blown away by an almost hurricane. Luckily we weren’t swept into the Caribbean, but we were blown away by some serious good times because my brother came to visit! Whoot!

“Habla Español in Belize?” “Er no, we speak English”

By the time we crossed the border into Belize, we were well versed in answering border control questions in Spanish. So needless to say, we were a bit stunned when Mr. Border Control asked us about our family tree and future plans in English. It was the strangest thing – you cross one border in the middle of Central America and all of a sudden everything flops over to English. To be lost in translation for over 3 months makes one a bit oblivious to reality, because 90% of the time we actually didn’t know what was going on around us.  While we were in Guatemala, the Guatemalan president declared a state of emergency – we only found out about it after our worried parents contacted us to find out whether we’re okay. Go figure.

Walking across the Melchor de Mencos border to the closest town took us about an hour, so at least we had time to shift our lazy brain gears over to English. From Benque Viejo del Carmen we took a bus to Belmopan, which is the (teeny tiny) capital of Belize. From Belmopan we had to wait an hour or 10 for the next bus to Dangriga, the beachside town I decided we should go to. Now the bus queueing system in Belize is totally different from the rest of Central America. Previously we just had to gun it, taking our backpacks off mid-run and swinging it to the bus wrangler who’ll tie it to the roof. In Belize you queue for the bus in a straight line. But the moment the gates open the polite line morphs into a Rorschach inkblot of people trying to squeeze onto the bus. Luckily we are well trained in the ancient art of bus squeezing.

Cabins in the wind

Dangriga was nice, but slightly odd. With a population of 9100 it’s the largest town in southern Belize and also the hotspot of the local Garifuna culture [Quick history lesson: the Garifuna people are the descendants of Nigerian slaves who were shipwrecked in the early 1600s. Over the years they fused into the Carib Indian communities and ta-dah! The Garifuna (or Garinagu as they call it) culture was born]. Amongst the Garifuna people, who are all tall, toned and pretty much catwalk material, are a handful of Asian shopkeepers, two lost Australian backpackers, a couple of Hispanic families and Ruthie – the owner of Ruthie’s Cabins.

Ruthie and her husband were lovely hosts. After booking into our cabin, we stayed for a little chat, but realised that even though they speak English, we can still only understand 50% of the conversation. Thanks to Wikipedia, here’s an example of Belize Creole:

English: “If the cow didn’t know that he could swallow grass, he wouldn’t have tried it”

Bileez Kriol: “If wa cow neva no ih cu swalla ɡrass, ih neva mi wa try it.”

So we smiled, nodded our heads and said yes to dinner the following evening. While we walked the only main street, we tried to tune our ears to the local dialect and compared prices between the different supermarkets. Basically, we couldn’t afford to buy any snacks, beer or cold drinks, because even though it looks like Belize is falling apart from the outside, it’s still pretty expensive. So I had a cheese sandwich at the only restaurant in town. We also met a super tall stringy looking guy called William – the local tour operator and stopping-for-a-lengthy-chat guy.

That night a storm the size of Canada broke loose. While our cabin swayed from side to side at 2am (Mother Nature always strikes at 2am), I worked on an emergency escape plan: put on shoes, grab passport and run when the roof blows off.

It didn’t blow off. The next morning William was waiting outside our cabin to shoot the breeze with us.

William: “Gud maanin! Da how yu di du?”*

Us: “Er, fine? Was that a hurricane last night?”

William: “Shoooweeeee! Hahahahaha! Naaaa! >something else something else<”

So it turned out that it wasn’t a hurricane. And Ruthie said she’ll let us know when we should start to run.

And that was Dangriga. Small town, strange English, loads of friendly people. Oh, and Ruthie’s dinner was amazing – she made us snapper with tomatoes served with coconut rice and black beans.

I must be honest, I wasn’t too sad to leave this ol’ town. The almost hurricane was enough to get me packing. That and the fact that my brother was on his way to Belize City #yes!

Phoata taim!

(Oh ja, if you want to get your head around Bileez Kriol, click here.)

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Our world famous crossing borders smile.
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Well well well, if it isn’t our little cabin by the sea.
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And this is what little cabins by the sea look like after being hit by a hurricane.
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While I was sitting on the porch of our little cabin, I literally saw the whole of Dangriga getting their hair done.
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The wind before the storm. Strangely beautiful, but scary. Almost like William Dafoe.
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Welcome to Ruthie’s Cabins! Really, if you ever go to Dangriga and you decide to stay at Ruthie’s (there isn’t really another option), you should ask her to make you dinner.
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Dangriga afternoons are by far the most laid-back afternoons.
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Oh look! We survived the storm and celebrated with a lunch of crisps and some honey bread we found in town. It’s always handy to travel with peanutbutter – you never know when you’ll come across musty honey bread.

Something old, something new, some things colonial, something blue

Ah Antigua – you sure know how to churn an old, crumbling city into a delicious buttercream cake. Yes, the city is crowded with tourists and travellers, but this old town is in fact big enough to host a backpacker convention, but also small enough to discover in three days. Or four days…time has this sneaky habit of confusing me.

On how we got to Antigua
It felt like forever. I know that ‘it felt like forever’ is the most used sentence in this blog, but I really consider it important for my readers (i.e. family, friends and the one person from Russia who follows our antics) to grasp the enormity of how long it takes to get anywhere by bus. It takes forever. The border crossing was really non-eventful (just the way I like it), but when we got to Guatemala’s side it was scorching. I can say without a doubt that the sun is indeed a big ball of fire that is much closer to the El Salvador-Guatemala border than anywhere in the world. Expecting to jump on a bus (that’s usually just about to go), we where unfortunately the first passengers to arrive. So we had to wait for an hour. When the bus finally got going, there were only three of us onboard the ol’ Bluebird. This meant that we stopped at every single house at the side of the road for incase someone wanted to go somewhere else. At first, we were enjoying the music the bus driver played, we took selfies and video clips of the passing landscapes and we shared a cola – just like in the movies. That was within the first 15 minutes of departure – after about three hours of going at 40km/h we just surrendered our frustration to the gods of Guatemalan time and stared with pale eyes out the windows.

When we finally got to some town (I’m really not good with names), we had to jump out of the bus like vigilantes and run to another bus, escorted by a guard and his big rifle, and jump onto a much smaller bus that was already moving. I still have no idea what the guard was doing there. Maybe to prevent us from jumping into the arms of a proper vigilante. The smaller bus, with its crew of schoolgirls, church girls, hombres going home and a Chow puppy, was a lot more fun and much faster. So after 10 hours of travelling on four different busses, we got to Antigua.

Whoa, nice bells you’ve got there
I think Antiguans are the most photographed citizens on this planet – their city is super photogenic, and if you walk the streets, you’re bound to be in someone’s holiday snaps. The massive charm of the city lies in its churches and plazas, cobblestones and women in traditional dress, strong coffee and sugary-sweet sweets – all surrounded by three massive volcanos with names similar to that of the three muscateers: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. It rained a bit while we were there, which was quite nice as the air always had that sweet post-rain Jacaranda fragrance.

As you wander the colonial streets, trying to close your gaping mouth, it’s easy to forget that you’re still smack bang in the middle of Central America. For one, Antigua has an enormous amount of language schools, so all the tourists speak this odd Gringo-Spanish. Also, the city’s layout is very similar to what you’ll find in any other European country, and lastly – the shopkeepers have a very OCD way of packing their shelves (see photo below).

But this is just the creamy froth of the city. Take another gulp of what the crumbling walls have to offer, and you’ll taste the bittersweet beauty of everyday life. An old lady, surrounded by her prized possessions of rags and recyclables, whispering to the saint of prosperity and good health. Two pensioners and neighbors displaying the exact same offering of candied fruits and coconuts on sale to passersby, the fruit vendor allowing her photo to be taken with the purchase of an overripe mango and a soft and round mother selling steamy cups of atol and crunchy rellenitos to the devoted outside the church.

And there’s nothing as delicious as a hot cup of atol when it gets cloudy.

Antigua tastes like…
Cinnamon! And luckily for me, every delicious morsel I had in Antigua had the fragrant goodness of cinnamon. Atol is a steamy hot maize beverage made with corn, sugar and cinnamon. It’s like drinking a liquidised tin of sweetcorn – something I’m definitely going to make for all those who come to visit when we’re back home (so beware…). Rellenitos is a little sausage made of fried plantains, stuffed with black beans, toasted on a grill and dusted with cinnamon sugar and our coffee was strong, bitter and delicious. However, the taste that will always remind me of Antigua is that of marshmallows toasted on a smoldering piece of lava rock.

The story of two South Africans who went up a hill and came down a volcano
When it comes to hiking, I’m always as keen as a salsa band on a Friday night. There’s nothing as exciting as packing a bunch of bananas and peanuts into our stinky backpack and hitting a hill with bright eyes and full hearts. Midway during the hike, while we’re huffing and puffing or soaking wet and can’t see a thing, I’ll be that annoying person who’ll say “Why, isn’t this just nice.” Close to the end, I’m usually bored out of my skull and cursing myself for buying hiking boots that are a tad too small (because they were on sale). At the bottom of the hill I’m my ecstatic self again due to that invigorating sense of accomplishment one gets after a hike. That, and knowing that you’re going to order dessert after dinner as well.

The Bearded Wonder however, is a hiker of a different colour. Usually a lighter shade of scarlet with a hint of mud (due to his foolproof ability of always slipping-and-sliding down the path).

When we decided to hike Pacaya, 25km outside Antigua, I was keener than my usual keen. We haven’t hiked for a while, because the Husband had a cough and a chest wheeze that would make a grown man shudder. But this hike seemed simple enough and was only going to take us 3 hours max. It was really easy, a bit steep at times with horse poop everywhere, but nothing my too-small shoes couldn’t take on.
The views were amazing – we saw the three volcano musketeers, the city of Antigua and a hydro-electrical station that provides energy to Honduras. “Politics,” our guide said when I asked him why the much-needed energy doesn’t go the Guatemalans. We shook our heads and walked on.

Pacaya is still a very active volcano – its last eruption was somewhere in the nineties, when a couple of villages were wiped out. So we couldn’t really go up the volcano, but we got pretty close. The areas surrounding the volcano is the greenest green – lush and loaded with shrubs, trees and probably tarantulas. But the volcano itself is as black as its destruction. The lava rock almost feels like coral under your shoes – it’s really light, but strong. And this is where my taste for Guatemala lies. When we got to our destination our guide pulled out a family size bag of mellows, and we used the smoldering rock to toast them till they were puffy. Yes, it’s a very typical tourist thing to do, but I still loved it.

You want to know what’s just as typical touristy? My photos!

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How amazing are these cathedral ruins? After the 1776 earthquake the powers that be decided to give up with all the rebuilding.

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Some Antigua snaps – in the first photo you can see Agua smoldering under its usual blanket of clouds. You can’t actually see it, but it’s there.

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A self-indulgent snap of myself. I really don’t like to pose for photos, as can be seen on my face.

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Just beautiful, don’t you think? If you stare long and hard at any of the ruins, some beautiful details just pop out.

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Miss Guatemala and her niño. I had to buy three peaches from her in order to take a photo.

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A mid-morning snack of corn atole and rellenitos.

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I’ve always been a fan of tailgate picnics. For a dollar we got some chicken, rice and pasta salad. Hello carbs.

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The Little Corner Shop of Perfection.

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Traditional dress in Guatemala is really beautiful – every area is known by its colour.

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Lady with an Overripe Mango, 2014. (And on the right is another dress. If I had backpack space and some extra money, I would have bought a dress for every day of the week.)

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Oh look! It’s the lesser spotted Bearded Hiker, standing proudly in front of Pacaya.

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Lava rock and toasted marshmallows are really a match made in sweet heaven.

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I’ve always been a fan of dark backgrounds and bright pops of colour, but this was just so amazing to see.