Monday, January 31, 2011

Punta Gorda

On my second day at Hummingbird Farm, I went with Sarah into Punta Gorda. I made up a list of the things I needed to do: check email, update blog, etc. To make the most of my internet time, I am doing all my writing in advance, so all I have to do is copy and paste into blogger to update my blog. Still, my blog entries are going to lag behind a little, as I am writing most every day, and connecting to the internet every day.

Bus schedules are a little flexible. We knew the bus goes by around 1 pm, so we were waiting by the road in front of the farm at 12:30. The bus came around 12:45, probably. Punta Gorda is basically the southernmost tip of Belize, and borders the ocean. On a clear day, you can see Guatamala and Honduras. This was not a clear day. It rained off and on all afternoon. We got off the bus in Punta Gorda, by the place where Sarah would be staying the night, before going on to her next WWOOFing location.

She checked in with her landlady, and left her backpack in her room, and we went out to explore the city. She has been to Punta Gorda before, and served as my guide. We stopped by the bank so I could go in to the ATM and get some cash, since I only had 5 dollars left of the 100 I withdrew for my trip before leaving Utah. I took out 100 BZD, which should last for a few weeks. I budgeted $100 USD per month for spending money, so 100 BZD is two weeks worth.

We went to the internet place and I updated my blog with the entry about my bus trip, (yes, that does approximate how many entries behind I am), and checked my email. I had a bill from one of my credit cards, so I paid that too. We went for lunch, and I stopped by BTL to find out about getting internet up at the farm, while waiting for our food to arrive. The guy there was ridiculously slow, and it turned out that satellite internet at the farm will be ridiculously expensive, and the bill for it wouldn’t count as proof of residence to open a bank account, either. I think I will be going into Big Falls or Punta Gorda every day or two, at least for the time being.

I rejoined Sarah for lunch, and the food had arrived, so we ate. She had a later breakfast and skipped lunch, so she ate ravenously. I had recently eaten a decent lunch, so I let her eat half of my food. I had some fresh squeezed orange juice, though, and it was delicious.

After eating, we visited some of the different shops, and toured the Chocolate Factory. They showed us their process, from drying and shelling the fresh cocoa beans, to the finished chocolate bars we were allowed to sample. It was a great treat to see how chocolate is made, and then to sample some freshly made chocolate.

By this point it was getting close to the time I needed to catch my bus. Sarah showed me to the bus stops and made sure I knew which bus to board, and we said our goodbyes. We only knew each other for a couple of days, but I’m going to miss her. Definitely keeping in touch. She has had some interesting adventures too, and is planning to do a couple of guest posts for me later, once she has a chance to write.

The bus stopped to fill up on my home, and I noticed that fuel was really cheap. I don’t know if it’s gallons or liters (and that makes a huge difference), but it was just under $1 BZD per. That’s a little under 50 cents US. Probably liters, but still a pretty good price.

I got back to Hummingbird Farm right before dark. We get up with the sun, and work hard all morning, so after a short visit with Mr. Lucas, I called it a night and hit the sack.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hummingbird Farm: First Impressions

The farm where I am staying in is reasonably big, about 112 acres. Most houses in this part of Belize are built up on stilts, for protection from hurricanes. There is a ladder up to the main floor, and I stayed last night on a mattress up on the second floor. It has a thatch roof, and 3/4 walls, so there is a good breeze going through. I will be setting up my tent later today, and sleeping under a palapia (pavilion).

The owner is an eccentric former New Yorker who moved out here about 10 years ago. He has been gradually building out the farm and trying to make connections with local restaurants to sell produce to. There are a few locals who work for him and live on the property. In addition to that, there is one other WWOOFer who is here until tomorrow. Sarah, from New Hampshire.

I spent the morning watering plants in the garden, dragging cuttings from the trees they use to make roofs for the palapas, and raking leaves. We start working at about 7 am, and work until lunch time. The locals that work for Mr. Lucas also work in the afternoon, but WWOOFers have the afternoons off. Today I am visiting with Sarah as she gets her hair braided by one of the local women that works here, and tomorrow we will be going to Punta Gorda. She is going to show me around, and then I will be returning to the farm. She will be going on to another farm that’s a little more secluded for a couple weeks. She might stop by here for another week before going home, but does not know yet.

The closest Internet access is a 20-30 minute bus ride away, and costs $4BZD ($2USD) each way, so I will only be updating my blog every couple of days. I will try to write every day, though, and build up a backlog of entries, so once I get regular internet I can continue posting even if my day-to-day activities at that point are a little less interesting.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Bus Ride to Belize

I thought that I would have ready access to internet for most of my trip, but the opposite has occurred. Most of the buses and terminals did not have internet access, and once I got into Mexico, I could not find places to charge my devices either. One at a time, everything went dead. First my mp3 player, then my laptop, then my phone, and last of all my Kindle. Technically not dead yet, but with Wireless off to conserve power. There was decent 3G coverage in Mexico, and I was able to do a little bit, but it’s not an optimal tool for blogging.

I began my bus trip at the Greyhound station in Salt Lake, catching the 8:45 pm bound for Mexico City, by way of Denver, El Paso, and Juarez. Crossing the border was painless, but my Spanish was week enough at that point that I missed the agent telling me it would cost 262 pesos to leave the country. About $25, no big deal. I changed $60 into pesos in Juarez, hoping it would last me the entire time in Mexico.

American buses- typically Greyhound, are pitiful compared to Mexican buses. Mexican buses are a luxurious experience. The seats are more comfortable, the foot-rests better designed, the seats recline further, and there are drop-down DVD screens that play a succession of movies from 9 am until about 10:30 pm, except when the bus is in a station.

Food, on the other hand, was a problem in Mexico. Limited to the narrow selection available at the refreshment stands in the bus stations, I survived Mexico on Yoghurt, water, and occassionally crackers, for the grain. I craved fresh fruit and vegetables.
I also craved a good shower. Living by bus for so many days leaves you smelly. I learned that only proper hygiene has been protecting me from acne. The breakout is minor, and limited to my forehead. I hope it will pass within a few days.

The bus terminal at Mexico City was large, as expected. I arrived a little early at 1:30 am, and wandered through the terminal, reading the lists of destinations on each bus line’s signs. None of them said Chetumal, so I asked at each one until I found one that could point me to the right line.

The ticket to Chetumal was substantially more than I was expecting, and I paid for it with my Barnes & Noble Mastercard. I don’t know the exact cost, because it depends on exchange rates and fees, but it was a little more than $100. I was expecting it to be about $30 from Mexico City to Chetumal, again from Chetumal to Belize City, and again from Belize City to my destination, between Independence and Punta Gorda.

The bus to Chetumal took substantially longer than expected, too, although after the stick shock and a conversation I had the first day with a girl on the bus, I had revised my expectations somewhat. I left Mexico City around 10:45 am, and arrived in Chetumal the next day around 9:45 am. I had to catch a taxi to where I could catch the bus for Belize City, and then a short wait for that bus. No problems.

Crossing the border again was easy, and used up the last of my pesos. I budgeted Mexico accurately, except for having to put an extra 1142 pesos on my Mastercard. It will likely cost me to leave Belize, too, and I will budget for that on my return trip.
In Belize City, I caught another bus toward Punta Gorda, but the driver and conductor were not familiar with my destination, Hummingbird Farm, halfway between Independence and Punta Gorda. They let me off in Dangriga where I am waiting for my next connection to Punta Gorda by way of Independence. If this driver doesn’t know my destination, I will continue to Punta Gorda and find a Hostel for tonight.

I still don’t have an internet connection, so I am writing this in advance of posting, but I finally found power to charge my devices. Two other buses have come so far, but not the one I am looking for. I hoped to reach my final destination before dark, but that is looking less and less likely, as it’s already after 5:30. I’m not sure what time sundown is, though, since we are much closer to the equator.

It was starting to get dark when the bus finally came for Independence/Punta Gorda. I asked the conductor if he knew where Hummingbird Farm was, and he said he did. It was quite dark and late when I finally got to my destination. The driver honked as we arrived, and somebody came down with a flashlight. He was surprised at my arrival, because it was so late, but took me up to the main house where I finally met the owner and got settled in.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My week in Utah

I had four essential objectives in Utah. One, I needed to sell my car, so I wouldn't have to keep making payments on it while in Belize. Two, I needed to wait for my laptop to arrive, having ordered one for a really good price right before leaving Spokane. Three, I needed to pick up a tent, sleeping bag, and backpack from a good recreational outlet or army surplus store. Four, I wanted to get my free eye exam from Standard Optical that came with the contacts care package I bought a year ago.

The first objective, to sell my car, was a bust. I listed on Craigslist, KSL, and Facebook, to great apathy. One person contacted me and test drove it the first day, and then I never heard anything from them or anybody else. I determined that I would sell it directly to one of the dealerships for a bit less: I only needed $2000 to make selling it better than continuing to make payments. That was a bust. I visited the dealership, only to learn that my car had Unibody damage before I bought it. We ran Carfax when we bought it, can it came up clean, but they ran Autocheck, which has much more complete results. So I got an offer: $500. Yeah, all of 25% of what I would need. So my car is parked in my brother's parking space for the next couple of months. He doesn't drive, so he doesn't really need it.

The second objective, to wait for my computer, was amusing, and somewhat frustrating. I checked my email on Saturaday, a few hours after arriving at five a.m., to find that my laptop had not yet been shipped. I had not yet updated my billing address on my credit card when I ordered. I put my middle name on the shipping address. So there was a complete mismatch between the billing and shipping addresses, and the vendor froze the order. Too good of a steal to let go (Eee for only $200), I called the vendor to find out what I needed to do. They refunded my credit card and invoiced my paypal instead. I made the payment, so they could process it. This whole thing took a couple days, and my laptop wasn't shipped until Tuesday. I had wanted to leave by Tuesday, but it was alright because it gave me a few more days to attempt selling my car. Still, by the time my laptop came Friday, I was champing at the bit to get out of town. Needless to say I was on the next bus out.

The third objective I had no problems with. I stopped by the army-navy surplus store on Redwood Road to check out what they had. I misremembered how big it was- I thought it was about four times the size of the store I visited in Spokane, and it was closer to six times its size. I was on the phone with my youngest brother while in the store, and he was very helpful in looking up information from the recreational outlet on State Street to price compare for me. I ended up buying my tent and backpack from the army-navy surplus store on Redwood, and then driving over to State to buy my sleeping back at the recreational outlet.

The fourth objective was also easy-peasy. I called Standard Optical on Tuesday morning to find out when my scheduled appointment was. (They scheduled an appointment for me a year in advance when I bought the care package.) I had already missed my appointment, because they never made any reminder efforts, and was probably in Spokane whenever the appointment had been. They rescheduled me for that day, and I got my eyes checked. My prescription has remained consistent over the last year, and I got a written copy so I can buy contacts or glasses in Belize or Mexico if I need to.

My four objectives finally complete on Friday afternoon, I caught the next Greyhound out. Now I am on my way again. Mexico City bound on Greyhound, and from there I will be catching connections to Chetumal, down to Belize City, and then to Hummingford Farm, almost all the way to Punta Gorda in Southern Belize. The official language of Belize is English, but in the south a lot of people speak Spanish, so I should have some good opportunities to brush up on my Spanish.

Happy trails!

p.s. Comments are welcome- I hope all are doing well with school, work, etc.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Driving from Spokane to Salt Lake

The drive from Spokane down to Salt Lake City is about 12 hours, a little longer if you hit bad weather conditions or make extra stops. Typically I start my drive first thing in the morning, so I can make it all the way into Salt Lake in one day. This time I tried a different strategy. The weather was bad all week in the mountains East of Spokane, and no forecast for improvement any time soon.

The worst section in the winter is the mountains between Spokane and Missoula, Montana. Instead of leaving early and driving that section in the wee cold hours of the morning, I opted to leave in the afternoon and drive that section at peak warmth for the day instead. That way if I hit bad weather, at least it would be rain, or snowfall, but not ice and sleet.

I took my car to Jiffy Lube and got an oil change and all my fluids checked before I left, then I finished packing and loaded up my car. I stopped by campus to see a friend briefly on my way out. (When you've been kind of dating somebody, you don't just disappear, you take time to say goodbye.) From there, it was open road.

I like to stop for gas in Post Falls on my way out, because it's a cheaper place to top off for the drive than Spokane is. Then I usually fuel in Missoula and Idaho Falls. At 30 mpg, with a fourteen gallon tank, that's all the stops I need to make.

I did hit some heavy rainfall on the first leg of the drive into Missoula, and a few places where I found myself downshifting suddenly to decrease my speed without the loss of control that sudden braking gives you. Sometimes you come up on a curve a little suddenly, and don't like how fast you're about to take it.

By the time I made it to Missoula, it was already dark, and I'd made one time zone change already, losing an hour. I left Spokane around 3, drove for three hours, and arrived in Missoula around 7:15. Those are not precise times, but you get the idea. I stopped at Subway for dinner, filled up my gas tank, found my hands-free headset so I could make some phone calls, and hit the road again.

I talked to a now previous roommate about things I left for the thrift store, my mom about housing arrangements in Salt Lake, and later my brother about Belize and what exactly I was doing.

The best part about long drives is the music. You just can't make that kind of trip without the accompaniment of a good CD or MP3 collection. My music highlights were Lily Allen on the stretch between Dillon, MT and the Idaho border, and then ... more on the second in a bit, I don't want to spoil it.

Lily Allen is my current favorite female vocalist. Her accent is absolutely gorgeous, her songs are lyrically brilliant, and she has such attitude! I highly recommend giving her a listen. I have the Alright, Still album, and my favorite songs are Smile and Alfie.

I parked at a rest stop in Southern Montana and took a 15 minute catnap before setting out again. The worst road conditions were an hour north of Idaho Falls, where there are wind gusts that blow snow across the road. I slowed down to about 55, to maintain better control of the car through the wind gusts. My line was clear, but the other lane wasn't, and I didn't want the wind to force me into it.

I arrived in Idaho Falls about 2 am, and it was there that I planned to stay the night. I was more hungry than tired though, so I stopped at Shari's, and all-night diner for some food. After a terrific omelet with hash browns and toast, I was feeling great, so I gassed up the car and hit the road again.

As I drove through the wasteland of Southern Idaho, the weather could only be described as "not fog." The humidity was high, and definitely affected visibility, but it wasn't exactly fog. Fog reflects your high beams back to you, creating a decrease in visibility, rather than an increase. I was still seeing improved visibility from high-beams, rather than reduced visibility. With the lesser amounts of traffic in the wee hours of the morning, and the not fog decreasing visibility, it felt like driving through the twilight zone for miles.

It was the perfect opportunity for some Blitzen Trapper. I only have three songs on my MP3 player, and I like them all, but I have never previously listened to all three together. It was a surreal experience. Each of the three songs had a distinctly different mood and feel, with only the recognizable voice connected the three songs together.

The first song, Furr, is a bluesy folk song about a man who joins a wolf pack and become a wolf for several years, until meeting a beautiful girl and settling down on a farm. The second song, Heaven and Earth, is haunting lullaby with deeply insightful lyrics that reach down into your soul and give a good tug. In contrast to Furr's light bluesy feel, it is deeply touching. The third song, Sci-Fi Kid is a typical Indie rock melody, jaunty, light, good energy - a great song, but not one that reaches deep into your soul. Listening to all three, back to back, in the Southern Idaho frosty wasteland was beautiful.

The roads were clear the rest of the way in, and I arrived at my parents' old house in Magna at five a.m. They moved to Iowa, so I had to spend some time turning up the heat, turning on the water and water heater, etc., and got to bed about 5:30. I slept for two hours and started my first day in Salt Lake.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Official Plan

I don't hate accounting, but I am not exactly loving it anymore. I have a strong belief that you should love what you do, and if you can't, find something to do that you can. That makes not loving accounting anymore a significant event.

Partly I burned out, partly I got bored (and no, in my paradoxical world, those are not antithetical to each other), and partly I just can't stand any more bitter freezing winter months of snow, ice, perma-frost, and coldness.

I am not ready to give up on education entirely, even though a Master's degree has no relevance to the real world, outside of whatever limited career fields it channels you into. An MBA has more real world applicability than most Master's though. I will contact my school to do what it takes to switch from the Masters in Accountancy to the MBA program.

This semester, I have reconfigured my schedule to take trailers instead of regular classes. At my business school, the semesters are broken up into regular ten-week classes (two credits each, typically), followed by more specialized five-week classes (one credit each), known as trailers. I can't take as many credits this way, but I can structure my schedule to not start classes until the last week of March.

I am in Utah presently, (hoping to write about the drive down from Washington in the next couple of days), and actively trying to sell my car. Once I've sold my car, I will take Greyhound further south into Mexico City, and then local buses to Chetumal and then across the border into Belize. I will be volunteering on organic farms, working on sustainable development of agro-culture and helping organic farms integrate into the local economies and provide greater strength and support to local economies.

In addition to my volunteer work, I will be doing some writing and other internet projects to begin developing a little more income, so that my future income sources will be less geographically dependent than they are now. If my income projects are doing well enough, and I really like Belize, I may drop my trailers and repay my student loans, but that's not currently the official plan.

The official plan is to return for my trailers, and then continue working on my MBA. In the fall, I will take regular classes and no trailers, to escape as much of the winter as I can. For the following semester, I will apply for the Jesuit MBA program, and try to spend that semester somewhere warming, but taking full-time classes. That's the long-term plan.

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