Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dreaming of Placencia from rainy Vancouver

Now that I’m back in rainy Vancouver where the clouds don’t break for days at a time, it’s hard to believe that not long ago I was here:

We had such varied experiences during our tour of Central America that it’s hard to pick a favourite spot or activity, but Placencia, Belize is certainly among the finalists.

The little village of Placencia is located on a peninsula about three quarters down the coast of Belize on the Caribbean Sea (a 15-minute boat ride from Independence).

To reach Placencia from Honduras, we caught a boat from Puerto Cortes. Actually, this was the one point of our journey that was not at all flexible since the boat only travelled in this direction once a week. The D-Express was much smaller than we imagined and crammed inside with our luggage wearing the life jackets they had given us, it wasn’t a pleasant ride. The destination, however, was worth it.

 The little town had a laid-back Caribbean feel to it and seemed to retain its natural charm while being very tourist-friendly. I even preferred it to the lovely island of Roatan, Honduras, which we had visited the week before.

We stayed in an inexpensive guesthouse called Deb and Dave’s Last Resort, which was clean and comfortable and only a two-minute walk from the beach.
Actually, you can walk anywhere in the town within a few minutes. Placencia basically has the main road and then a paved footpath running parallel to the road called The Sidewalk. Anything you need can be accessed by one of the two and there are brightly coloured markers everywhere that point you in the right direction.

There isn’t much else to do in Placencia besides spend time on the beach or visit the restaurants or bars, but it felt great just to relax. We even indulged ourselves and got pedicures, which we convinced each other that we needed after wearing our sandals for almost three weeks.

The one disappointment was that because it was low season, many of the recommended restaurants were closed. We didn’t even get to try the gelato that was apparently the best in Belize. (Actually, it seemed to be nearly impossible to find ice cream anywhere in Central America.) But we did try some nice Creole dishes and I managed to find some yummy papaya smoothies – my new favourite.

After a short stop in this tropical paradise we boarded the Hokey Pokey Water Taxi to the mainland and continued our journey. Of all the places we visited, I wish I could have spent more time there, especially now as winter approaches.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jade and Chocolate

It has been extremely interesting to learn about the Mayan civilization. Their history of human sacrifice aside, the Mayans used cacao (cocoa) as money, drank chocolate during their wedding ceremonies and viewed Jade as their most precious stone, and these are things I can get behind.

We got our first taste of Mayan architecture in Copan, Honduras. This site in western Honduras, not far from the Guatemala border, is considered one of the most impressive of all Mayan sites, not because of its size, but its legacy of craftsmanship.

We entered the site through the west court of the Acropolis and the sight of the stone temples, hidden behind the trees only a moment before, was rather breathtaking.

I’m normally quite a miser, but I happily paid the extra cash to get a guided tour of the site and it was worth it to have our own guide so that we could ask questions throughout the tour. I even paid the $15 extra to tour the tunnels, which allowed us to view the temples that have been discovered underneath the ones visible from the outside. (Apparently each new ruler would build bigger temples than the last ruler. Sometimes they would destroy the old temples and other times they built over top.)

We also learned about the Mayan ball game. Though it has been hard to decipher the rules, many archaeologists believe that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed at the end of the game — an honour to enter the afterlife.

These ancient sites are a history-lover’s playground and it was amazing to explore the site at our leisure after the tour and climb to the top of the temples that were open for climbing.

Closer to the tail end of adventure we also visited Tikal in Guatemala — a site that our guide book describes as possibly the most renowned of all Mayan ruins. Tikal includes several giant temple pyramids, the largest of which rises to 64 metres above the forest floor. Thousands of other buildings dot the landscape, many still covered by trees, roots and earth.

We had read that it was possible to book a sunrise tour and watch the sunrise from the top of the temples. So we booked a tour and were ready by 4:30 a.m. for our shuttle. In fact, the shuttle didn’t arrive until just before 5 a.m.

I hear in Guatemala you have to add half an hour to all time estimates and this is all very well, except that the sun doesn’t follow these rules. The sun rose as we travelled the hour journey to the park and it was light by the time we arrived. It didn’t seem like any other groups made it earlier and the park only opens at 6 a.m., so I guess it was just a case of false advertising.

Otherwise, the tour of was great. Our guide showed us the ruins and shared facts about the flora and fauna. He picked up a big, black tarantula and pointed out monkeys and a poisonous snake.

The temples were impressive and we climbed three or four including Temple IV, the highest in the Mayan world. It was also neat to see the temples that have not been uncovered yet. I would easily have mistaken them for hills covered in plants and trees.

I’ve always secretly wanted to be an archaeologist and exploring the ruins only renewed that desire. I’m just not sure I could handle working alongside the tarantulas and poisonous snakes we encountered in the jungle. So, for now, I’ll keep the Mayan culture alive by indulging in their favourite treat — chocolate.

Overlooking one of the courts in Copan.
The Lonely Planet apparently published the same jumping photo. (Tikal)
One of the temples in Tikal.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Getting from Point A to Point B

On our first chicken bus in San Salvador.

One of the most stressful parts of travelling is getting from Point A to Point B, and this particular adventure involves a lot of that. Sometimes we are on the go every other day.

We are also trying to find the cheapest way to get around (taking safety into consideration) so this can be quite challenging.

So far, relying on the Internet and guide books we have managed quite well and our travels have gone quite smoothly.

Our first journey on our own from Antigua, Guatemala to Santa Ana, El Salvador was the most stressful and we actually ended up in a different city from the one we set out for. First, we took a shuttle in the morning from our hostel in Antigua to the Tica Bus terminal in Guatemala City and we were quite pleased with ourselves because we managed to cut out a taxi ride by asking the driver to leave us there instead of the airport. We also booked our tickets to San Salvador without any problems and asked the bus driver to drop us off in Santa Ana as we had read that we should do.

We were making very good time when we got to the border and with a short wait where the security checked our ID against the bus manifest, we were through the border. Unfortunately we hadn't gone ten minutes when the police stopped the bus and began searching the luggage. Of course, we thought the worst having read all sorts of accounts about corruption in the police force and highway robberies. No one explained what was happening and if they had we wouldn't have been able to understand anyway. We were there for a very long time when we saw the police load a few bags onto their truck -- they appeared to be full of winter clothes -- and the bus was turned around and sent back to the border.

At the border, all the passengers were ordered out then after a while we were allowed to get back on. We waited for another 45 minutes after this not knowing what was happening and by now it was dark and we were worried about how we would get to our hostel. Finally, they told us to get off the bus and we were loaded onto a different bus from a different company also headed for San Salvador. Marie and I managed to communicate to the new driver that we wanted to be dropped off in Santa Ana. In the meantime we had met an American traveller -- the only other person who spoke English -- and asked if we could take a taxi with him to his hostel if for some reason they didn't stop.

They did stop in Santa Ana, but the Shell station was deserted without a taxi driver in site. There was no way we could get to our hostel, unless we tried hitchhiking which was obviously out of the question, so we got back on the bus for San Salvador. In the end it worked out. We went to the hostel with our new friend Aaron, and there was room for us all. We spent the next day touring the city with him and then we managed to find out way to our next destination, Copan, Honduras.

Beyond this one experience, we've taken a number of these coach buses as well as local chicken buses and taxis where we've had to, without any difficulty. The most expensive ride was a $46 bus ride from San Salvador to San Pedro Sula, but we got off in La Entrada and caught a chicken bus to Copan. The cheapest journey, which also got us the furthest, was a local bus from Copan to San Pedro Sula (about $7) followed by a bus to La Ceiba about ($5.50), altogether a journey of about six hours. Silly how the 15-minute taxi to our hotel cost $20.

Now we are in Roatan, Honduras -- a beautiful Island on the Caribbean Sea. We took a ferry to get here and have a few more journeys to go before we end back in Guatemala City. Wish us luck!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hanging out with Mormons and visiting catholic churches

This title seems appropriate since Marie is Catholic and I am LDS. Our interfaith friendship, which began in high school, has seen us through many adventures including hiking the Juan de Fuca trail, biking the kettle valley and camping on the beach near Forks, WA. The latest installment of The Adventures of Jade and Marie finds us backpacking through central America navigating new countries with our limited Spanish and our limited budget.
We first arrived in Guatemala City last Sunday and were greeted by my first companion from Temple  Square and her mother. (My mission continues to bless my life by offering me friends and places to stay throughout the world.) It was so nice to have locals take care of us the first few days. Sister zepeda's mom showed us around Guatemala City the first day and another former sister missionary Amelia Lopez volunteered to take us to Antigua on Tuesday.
In Guatemala City we visited so many cathedrals I almost lost count, though I think there were six. Most were very ornate with several chapels and statues, candles and worshippers. We also visited the. National palace and national theatre and had tours of both.
In Antigua - a beautiful colonial town with cobblestone streets and beautiful colorful buildings- we saw some more churches. In at least two cases, we visited the main restored chapel and then explored the ruins left from earthquakes years ago which gave us an idea of the enormity of the buildings pre-earthquake. That was fun - I always like a chance to explore ruins and touch really old things.
So far we have visited four cities: Guatemala City, Antigua, San Salvador and Copan, Honduras. Each has a central park or main square with a government building and, of course, a Catholic church. We visited a few churches in San Salvador and today in Copan we got to experience the old church as more than a museum when we attended mass. Though of a different faith, I appreciated the hymns and the love these people had for their Heavenly Father, so found common ground despite language barriers.
It's only been a week and there is so much more to share, but I'll try write more when I can and add photos when I have a computer instead of an iPhone.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shakespeare and the Fat Dragon

A Vancouver summer is not complete without a rendezvous with William Shakespeare in a tent overlooking English Bay.

Each year Bard on the Beach, a professional Shakespeare Festival in Vancouver, produces up to four different Shakespeare plays, which are presented in tents against a backdrop of mountains, sea and sky in Vanier Park on the waterfront. And each year the Swartzberg girls try to make it to one of the shows.

This year we opted to see The Taming of the Shrew on the main stage, but first we decided to make an evening of it and went out for dinner in Vancouver.

By recommendation we went to Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q, which serves southern barbeque inspired food mixed with Asian flavours.

Dodgy looking street.
While I claim Vancouver as my home when I’m beyond the borders of British Columbia, I’m actually from Coquitlam, which is why I didn’t blink an eye when I looked up the restaurant and saw that it was on Powell Street in the Strathcona neighbourhood.

When we pulled up in front of the restaurant we were all a bit taken aback. The neighbourhood seemed quite dodgy with gated old storefronts, rundown apartment buildings and scruffy people smoking from chairs on the sidewalk. Others pushed shopping carts loaded with pop cans and beer bottles.

"Green Graffiti"
We were meeting Robin for dinner and had arrived a bit early so we hesitantly decided to go for a walk around the block. We found a park dotted with homeless people napping on blankets, though there were some children and families playing at the playground. We also saw a fascinating example of “green graffiti” where people grow flowers, herbs and vegetables from a flowerbed on the wall.

At the appointed time we went into the restaurant, fully expecting it to be a dingy little place matching the neighbourhood in which it was located. Instead we found a lovely clean space with brick walls, lit by lanterns and candles. It was a bit disorienting actually coming in from the street, but what a pleasant surprise! And the food was just as nice. We had little steamed buns stuffed with beef/squash/squid, chicken lemongrass soup, lamb ribs, sweet and sour ribs, smoked pig’s snout fried rice, and a delicious mango rice pudding.

Inside the restaurant.
With full tummies we continued on to our evening of Shakespeare and enjoyed an energetic performance of The Taming of the Shrew. This production set the play in the Empire period with costumes of the same historical period and a set inspired by a pastoral landscape. However, the peace of the landscape was juxtaposed with the war of words and wits we saw played out between Kate (the shrew) and Petruchio (the man who volunteered to marry her and tame her for the sake of her dowry).

 It’s an interesting play really, which actually feels a bit uncomfortable when viewed through modern lenses. In the end, Petruchio “tames” his new bride to the point that this previously free spirit defers to him even when he claims the moon is the sun and she makes a big speech about how wives should obey their husbands.

It doesn’t need to be uncomfortable though. In my opinion, through their exaggerated relationship, we learn about compromise. Petruchio uses his outrageous tactics to show Kate that it is better to play with him than against him and in the end they are partners and she seems happy. Also, though Petruchio’s initial motive was money, it appears that he sees the potential in her that no other man saw and falls in love with her.

You probably didn’t come looking for a literary/theatrical analysis, but there you have it. Today’s “Journey with Jade” took you into the world of Will Shakespeare.

On a somewhat related note, I have decided that Baptista’s strategy to marry off his eldest daughter is a good one. My younger siblings will not be allowed to get married until I do (except for Kent who cheated and got married while I was a missionary.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Road trip to Lake Louise

For me, travel is usually about the destination. I don't really like flying and long car rides don't really appeal to me. And yet, all these I endure for the joy of visiting a new place.

However, a semi-spontaneous trip on the B.C. Day weekend was about the journey as well the destination (considering we were only there for just over 12 hours).

On Sunday afternoon (after I returned from a conference in Kelowna) Robin and I packed some overnight bags, stocked the car with a good supply of munchies and set out on a road trip to Lake Louise, AB — a northeast journey of just over six hours.

We knew it was a long way to travel for a very short visit, but saw it as an opportunity to see (if briefly) the many little B.C. towns along the way.

We passed through Kamloops, Chase and stopped for dinner in Salmon Arm, which was bigger than I had imagined it to be. Salmon Arm, located on the shores of Shuswap Lake has a population of about 17,000 (compared to Merritt’s population of about 7,000). We drove around for a bit trying to decide where to eat and made a lucky find. We found a restaurant called the Wicked Spoon — a café/grill with a delightful assortment of fusion dishes. I had a lamb burger – a lamb patty served on naan with feta, olives, red onion and tzatziki — and Robin had their dinner buffet, which included salmon so we got to sample some salmon in Salmon Arm!

Once we were full we continued the journey through a little town called Canoe, which most people have probably never heard of before, and on through Sicamous, Revelstoke and Golden. On the way we passed a few interesting attractions, which we made note of planning to visit on the return journey the next day.

Our hostel the HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre.
We finally reached our destination at about 1 a.m. local time (I may have dozed for the last few hours of the journey) and located the hostel we had looked up on the Internet — the Hostels International-Lake Louise Alpine Centre. Luckily we thought to reserve a spot, so although we got there well after the quiet hours, there were two spots left for us — one in a boy’s dorm and one in a girl’s dorm.

I had to quietly sneak into bed and didn’t get to appreciate the hostel until the morning when the sun came in through the window. It was a cozy little room that housed up to five people with a bunk bed on the bottom floor and three beds in loft bedroom accessible by a steep wooden staircase. It was nice and clean and I didn’t even have to wait for a shower. While I got ready in the morning I chatted with one of my roommates — an Irish girl named Louise as luck would have it — who suggested we visit the Lake Louise Ski Area for a ride up the gondola and breakfast, so we did.

View of the Rockies from the mountain.
The ride up the mountain in an open-air chair cost $27.75, but for only $2 extra, we enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the bottom in the lodge. Those who know me and my miserly ways will understand this was a deal too good to pass up. The breakfast was decent, but the view from the top of the mountain was spectacular. We saw a real life panorama of the majestic snow-capped Rocky Mountains and nestled in a valley was the icy blue waters of Lake Louise.

We enjoyed the view for a spell, visited a Wildlife Interpretive Centre and then descended the mountain. What an experience to be suspended in the chair lift surrounded by so much beauty and silence — definitely worth the long car ride the day before.

Robin by the lake.
Seeing the lake from the top of the mountain was not good enough, so naturally that was our next destination. Apparently it was also the destination of thousands of other people. We eventually opted to pay for parking at the Chateau Lake Louise instead of driving in circles waiting for a spot in the public lot.

The lake was lovely and painfully cold as I discovered when I dipped my feet in the clear blue water. I would have loved to go hiking around the lake — there are plenty of trails in the area — but our tight schedule wouldn’t allow it.

Inside the chateau we learned a little bit about the history of the lake, named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, and of the chateau, which evolved from a log cabin built as a day lodge for visiting mountaineers. From the beginning it seems the area was meant for a tourist destination and the Canadian Pacific Railway imported Swiss guides to develop the extensive trail system. And the tourists have never stopped coming.

I would have loved to dine at one of the chateau’s many restaurants overlooking the lake, but after a brief tour it was time to hit the road.

This is where we enjoyed a delicious
high-noon tea (in my dreams).
On the return journey we stopped to visit a Merritt friend and his wife in Golden, where I had crème brulee for lunch at a pleasant place called the Whitetooth Bistro and then continued on with plans to visit some of the previously noted attractions.

Unfortunately, the journey between Golden and Revelstoke (about 150 kilometres) took us nearly four hours because of an awful traffic jam. It was really terrible to be crawling along so slowly for so long along the two-lane highway. At one point, cars travelling the opposite direction near Rogers Pass were stopped completely and people were standing beside their vehicles or sitting in the road. We began to suspect a Zombie Apocalypse and didn’t know if we were heading towards it or away from it. Later we learned a car accident was the real cause of the jam.

The delay meant we had to pass up the Three Valley Gap heritage ghost town, as well as The Enchanted Forest. Though we didn’t have time for it, we briefly stopped at the Craigellachie historic site — the place where they drove the last spike of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway on Nov. 7, 1885. It was dark and rainy, but I couldn’t pass up stepping foot on a historic spot and I didn’t want that traffic jam to steal all the fun.

We eventually spotted the familiar lights of the Nicola Valley close to midnight, and I was grateful for my own bed when I reached it, but I was pleased with our adventure.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Conquering the Grind

Carving at the base of Grouse Mountain.

Grouse Grind.

This two syllable, alliterated phrase conjures up all sorts of emotions in a Vancouverite. Fear. Determination. Anxiety. Courage.

Grouse Grind. Two short words that represent 2,830 stairs, or 2.9 kilometers up the side of a mountain when used together.

Combined, these words mean an 853-metre elevation gain to reach a summit that is 1,127 metres above sea level.

And every year, over 100,000 people take the challenge.

Perhaps, this hiking trail to the top of Grouse Mountain — often referred to as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster” — is to Vancouver and its visitors, what Mecca is to Muslims (a pilgrimage), or what Goliath was to David (the ultimate challenge).

Some are content to reach the top only once in order to cross it off their bucket lists, while others take the challenge again and again, swiping their Grind Timer cards at the base of the Grind and at the top, hoping to achieve a personal best, or better yet, break a course record.

(The male record stands at 25:01, while the female record is 31:04.)

With this nearly mythical hike relatively close to me, I’m sure those who know me are not surprised that I have taken the challenge myself on several occasions. Most recently, I made the climb last Saturday.

My friend Marie and I made the drive to the base of the mountain through slightly soggy weather to meet some of her co-workers who hoped to complete the epic hike for the first time. At least, I told myself, the narrow climb will be less crowded in the rain. Not so. The parking lot was as full as ever.

We waited in line for the washroom, took a “before” photo as a group and then checked our watches and began our climb.

Slightly treacherous "stairs" along the way.
This was my third time doing the Grouse Grind, and it doesn’t really get any easier. Don’t get me wrong, the Grind is manageable — people of all fitness levels can make it to the top — but it is hard. At times natural boulders and roots serve as steps in this stairway to heaven, while other sections of the hike are slightly more manicured for safety and to prevent erosion.

A big, bright yellow warning sign at the base of the trail and then partway up reminds hikers that the Greater Vancouver Regional District is not liable for personal injury or death that results along the trail, which is understandable considering how steep and sometimes slippery the stairs can be.

The first quarter is the hardest (or so say many experienced hikers) and when you first catch a glimpse of the quarter mark, the incline appears to be just shy of 180 degrees. (Though on Saturday, I didn’t really feel like it eased up too much after that.) My advice for beginners is to keep your eyes just ahead of you. This way you won’t be discouraged by the steep trail in front of you. You’ll also be sure not to trip or lose your balance. Each quarter of the trail is marked, and if you keep an eye out for the markings on the trees, you’ll count about 40 trees to the top.

Also, as a courtesy, keep to the right side of the trail where possible. The topless, muscular men jogging to the top of the mountain will appreciate this. As I’ve alluded to, on any given day the trail is extremely well used. Most people are friendly and encouraging, willing to move aside if necessary or pause to let you step aside. Other people are sweaty and grumpy. On the whole though, there is a feeling of camaraderie as everyone attempts the climb together.

I like to people watch and on Saturday I saw all shapes and sizes and heard several different languages on my way to the top. There were older people with hiking sticks, young children who sprightly hopped up steps that seemed as tall as their waists and lots of ladies sporting Lululemon. Though I caught bits and pieces of conversation, mostly I could hear the pitter patter of rain drops falling on the leaves and the harmony of heavy breathing.

When Marie and I finally sprinted the last stretch and tagged the timer at the top, we clocked a time of one hour and forty minutes (by our watches). Not nearly our best time, but we backtracked at the quarter mark to encourage those behind us and burned some extra calories along the way.

At the top of the mountain, we treated ourselves to some lunch and caught the tail end of the lumberjack show before paying $10 to descend in the gondola.

Does this now legendary hike live up to all the hype? Well, you’ll just have to take the challenge and decide for yourself. As for me, that certainly won’t be my last trek up the mountain.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Seventeen Months in Review

In 17 months, a lot can happen in a person’s life. You could get married and have a baby. You could buy a house. You could win the lottery (or you could lose all of your money). You could move across the country. You could even (almost) serve a full-time mission.

Since February 12, 2011  — the date of my last blog post — none of these things has happened. I still live in Merritt. I still work at the Merritt Herald. I still stay in my little apartment with a view of the Merritt Funeral Chapel. And, I still occasionally get locked both inside and outside of my apartment.

That’s not to say my life has been uneventful over the last year and a half. I’ve managed to keep myself busy.

Each year the Herald publishes a ‘Year in Review’ as the last paper of the year. This post is my attempt at a review of the last 17 months.

• In June 2011, I became the editor of our little paper, which publishes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• That same month, I ran my first half marathon — the Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon — which I completed in 2:04 plus a few seconds.

• Last year, I formed an alliance with a competitor  — the reporter from Merritt’s other newspaper. We still frequently compete in eating contests, like this Canada Day watermelon-eating contest, and the annual corn eatin’ contest in September. We also still try to scoop each other on the good local stories.

• In July 2011, I experienced the notorious Merritt Mountain Music Festival, which I covered for the paper. For four days I explored the festival grounds, hung out in the media tent, enjoyed my backstage privileges and took up close and personal photos of the country artists while they performed on the main stage. If you look just below Dierks Bentley’s hand in this photo, you can see me with my camera.

That same weekend, I performed some folk songs from Merritt’s downtown stage with Johnny Cash looking on in the background. One day I’ll be able to tell my kids that I’ve performed in the Country Music Capital of Canada.

• Later that summer, I made my theatrical debut as Lilly Priest in “Happy 100 Merritt,” a play to commemorate the city’s 100th anniversary. It was definitely a step out of my comfort zone, but at least I can cross that one off the list.

• By the time August rolled around, I needed a break. So, I hopped on a plane bound for Hawaii where I visited with some Temple Square sisters and explored the island.

• About six months later, I was able to go on another adventure and visited my home and native land (South Africa) with my family. We visited family, went zip lining, rode elephants and ate lots of biltong.

This list is by no means exhaustive — just a quick glimpse into my life over the last year and a bit. Stay tuned for more adventures to come.