When You Don’t Have a Clue

The plane landed at 1:30, it’s 3:00 now and I’m on a local bus to Playa del Coco. It’s the only beach town name I recognized, and the airport immigration official assured me that it’s a gorgeous beach.

Every American I spoke with on the flight is staying at a resort. They were either in a tour group, or had arranged rides, or rented a car, or took a taxi. A taxi driver quoted me $20 to town, and when I asked about a bus, he said the next was in an hour. Sensitive now to gringo-games, I asked around and found the bus stop. Five minutes later I paid my 80 cents and boarded.

An airport worker on her way home told me where to get off (in the nice sense) and where to catch a bus to the beach. $1.75 to the playa, excellent!

It’s 90 degrees and sunny. Apparently this is where they keep our sunshine sky when we’re not using it. It is fairly flat around Libería, the business capital of Costa Rica, but there are hills in the distance. Vegetation is reminiscent of Florida.

The bus is crowded. For the first 20 minutes I stood, but a seat just opened so I have 40 minutes to regroup before searching for a place to live for a few days. The sun sets around 6, and i would be nice to get settled by then.

There’s a cute baby in front of me, making all manner of adorable baby noises in Spanish. Trills and spits and baby aribas drown out a softly playing radio in the background.

Another baby just boarded and a new flurry of sounds ensued. It might have been territorial, but no fight broke out.

Earlier an old blind guy performed on harmonica and marimba. Quite popular — almost everyone gave him a few coins.

Half the bus got off at the last stop. I panicked a moment, but confirmed that we’re not there yet. A flock of young gringa travellers got on and talked about getting off at a dive shop, giving a valuable frame of reference.

We passed a billboard for a Ferreteria. I don’t want to know what it means.

— A short time later —

Confirmed the stop with the chicas, turns out they’re here for horticultural studies from the University of Wisconsin. Abby and Linda were kind enough to show me to the beach, where they wanted to shell-search.

Quite a lot of wildlife lurks at the shoreline. Large sandflea-type things burrow into holes and sea slugs with brilliant spotted shells glisten in the sun. Linda found a live sand dollar, with a carpet of tentacles on the bottom; returned to the sand the disc quickly buried itself.

The girls turn back and I spot a likely area for rooms. I won’t pay more than $19 a night! A beachside café beckons and looks pricey, but I stop for a drink and to gather intel.

The breeze is cool and gentle now. Awesome sunset predicted. And equally awesome if I can find a room before that happens.

My Spanish is pathetic, and I have bursts of word-searching for anything I anticipate saying in the next 15 minutes. Vocabulary comes quickly fueled by urgency. The toughest part at this stage of my learning is tha I can say simple things understandably. Then people rattle back their valuable answer like a machine gun. My eyes glaze over. I apologize for my poor language skills, please please speak slower. Many people seem to know English, but I prefer to struggle, and learn.

Score! El Torro Blanco — the White Bull — is near the church in the center of town, in front of the soccer field. Theoretically. And it’s not safe for a mujer (that’s me) to walk on the beach after dark.

I wasn’t sure of this total-lack-of-plan plan. Last year in Guatemala I didn’t have a clue, but I had destinations and a general idea of how to get there. This trip I have some rough notes from when I found the ticket. Costa Rica has rain forests, phenomenal naional parks, volcaos and hot springs. Fantastic beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, of course. That’s the extent of planning.

But in Guatemala I stressed about finding bus stations, catching the bus, and where it would end up. When you don’t have a plan, or a clue to go with it, there’s nothing to stress about. You trust it will work out.

On a practical note, it has to. What do I need? Some food, a place to sleep, and a shower once in a while. Humans being what they are, they happily provide these things and let you know what’s available. Another note: people share information. We’re social by nature. Maybe I’m naive and/or stupid, but on the road it’s more pleasant to assume kind intents until circumstances dictate otherwise.

— A bit later —

$15 per night. Women’s dorm, no other guests, my own bathroom, a/c, clean and basic. El Torro Blanco was $40 a night, but I am such a bargain slut. Seriously, when my eyes are closed I can’t tell the difference unless it smells, and this place is muy bueno.

Now that I’ve sorted all the easy decisions, I come to a tough one: a dip in the pool  before dinner or after. It’s muggy, my back is a sweatfest from the pack (which I was advised to dump asap to avoid the big gringa signs) and the later looks lovely. But I haven’t eaten since 8am and I’m a tad peckish. Hasta luego!

— A photographic note —

I’m taking pictures, and lots of them. But I, um, forgot to bring the cord to get them out of the camera. Oopsie…  Today I will seek technical advise on making that happen.

Posted in Adventure, Costa Rica, Spanish, Travel | Leave a comment

2012 Poster Child for Water Safety

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” ~Catherine Aird

Having had a few days of reflection, the aforeblogged New Year’s Paddle™ is officially my not-the-most-clever activity of the year. Out of curiosity, I read through the Coast Guard’s safety tips for kayaks and canoes.


Use a personal flotation device Check! And wear it tight – if it can slip over your torso when dry, it is of no use in the water.

Attach a paddle leash Check! First time using this handy device.

Proper footwear Check! Three for three: this is looking better than expected! I will probably upgrade to a pair of warmish water booties though.

Paddling whistle Well this is just plain clever. Next time for sure.

Water and snack 50/50 here. Although some might think that water bottle was filled with something quite a bit more stupid-inducing. The snacks were safe and dry in my bike bag. On the bike. On land. How I would have loved a snack.

Go with a friend At least 3 people in two boats. Imaginary friends don’t count. Having three people greatly increases the possibility that one person will say, “This is not a good idea. Let’s grab a coffee and plan the next trip.”

Tell somebody your paddle plan It doesn’t count to inform someone of the plan and tell them you’ll call later in the week to let them know how it went. I may not be in the running for this year’s Outstanding Water Safety Enthusiast award.

Start the trip with plenty of daylight remaining Best if you calculate based on your own time zone.

Be aware of weather conditions and water temperature Wishful thinking has no affect on wind speed. Wind speed has quite an awesome affect on water conditions and boat maneuvering.

Know self-rescue techniques Does not include prayer. Also does not include good intentions of practicing.

I have one of my very own to add:

Abandoning the plan is not failure Yes, I could have packed up the toys and tried another day. And while I could have gone to shore at any time and had a lovely hike back to safety, there were points at which this might have been happened after a dunking. Hypothermia is not on my bucket list.

Reality. Photos courtesy cwanderlust.com

How fortunate to have learned so much in only one day. Plus I was able to walk away from these valuable lessons. I’m grateful for a couple days of sore muscles that assisted reflection on choices made.

“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm”  ~Colette

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Top Ten Happinesses on New Year’s Day

There is a reason for being sore enough not to move after some adventures. It lends time to reflect upon the experience, recognizing gifts that might not have been apparent at the speed of life.

10. All my necessary exercise for the year is complete.

9. A leftover Nature Valley granola bar from the mystery shopping trip in October is delish when you’re starving.

8. I did not forget to take my car keys in the kayak. Because that would have been a very, very bad thing.

7. My bike is working again! Yeah!

6. My kayak is stable in questionable water! Yeah!

5. There is a bathtub in my life once more.

4. Ibuprofen.

3. Hot tea.

2. The fireworks. Definitely the fireworks.

1. My memory is such that I’ll remember the day as fun and will look forward to doing it again.

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Paddling into a New Year

First day of the new year, a sunny 59º, and the kayak calls, nay, begs for a ride. After much planning and maneuvering throughout the fall, I finally arranged the car to carry a kayak and a bicycle. What better way to try out this wonderful new transportational configuration than an easy float down the Delaware, right?

The seaworthy vessel

The first puzzle of the trip was how to get into the boat from the ramp without getting my feet wet. 7 miles with soggy toes, even at 59º, would not be comfortable. I strategically placed the kayak further away from dry ground into slightly deeper water. Taking a graceful leap that would make a gazelle jealous, I land gently in place and push into the current.

That’s when the wind pushed back. What felt like a spring-like breeze on shore was gale-force on the water. I am a lazy kayaker sometimes (I’m being generous with myself here because it’s a holiday and all). The Delaware River is beautiful, but the best part about it is that it does most of the work. Even on the calmest of days there’s a reliable current that will move you downstream. Not today. The wind negated the current most of the time and if I had stopped paddling I would have been pushed back from whence I came. It wasn’t cold, but it was relentless.

Did I mention that I put in the water at 2:45, and this run usually takes 2 hours?

One would think the wise course of action would be to, umm, change plans? Or at least go a little way downstream, turn around, and return? But I had left at noon to gather the bits and pieces for my expedition, and I wasn’t giving up that easily. Anyway, my bike was waiting patiently for me at mile seven. How would I ever explain an aborted mission? Surely the wind would die down, and there would be some semblance of a current somewhere.

Optimism only works to a certain degree, and it doesn’t help paddle.

Photo courtesy cwanderlust.com

The first mile was okay. The water was difficult, but stunning; reflections of blue blue sky and bright white clouds hinted of coming of snowflakes later in the season. Geese flew overhead, honking encouragement.

By the second mile my arms were getting tired. I had to paddle hard when the wind gusted to stay on course, and even harder when it wasn’t to make some distance.

Mile three was fun. That’s when the burning started and my brain calculated the possibility of actually arriving at the take-out before dark.

The fourth mile was exciting enough to erase the sense of burning. The Delaware treats you to several smallish rapids so you don’t lose interest. Today she was putting on quite the show. You can hear turbulence a couple minutes before arrival, but it’s difficult to see when sitting low in a kayak. In warm weather it’s fun to aim for the roughest bit and bob about – today I prayed that I could find a spot where I wouldn’t get hung up on a rock and go swimming.

Normal rocky rapids + choppy, wind-stirred water = confused currents that take a while to sort themselves out. You know that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster, just as it crests and your stomach rises to your throat and you get to relive all the happiest moments of your life before plunging to a certain death? It was like that. Actually, it was really fun. The best way (the only way) I know to get through is to just keep the boat heading into the waves and riding it out ’til it’s done. Paddling ferociously, I was still swept sideways, hard. Not a good way to enter the next set of waves, by the way.

My confidence was building even as my strength waned. Fortunately I was warm from the exertion, and the journey was halfway done. That’s what I convinced myself to keep the panic in check.

Mile five. Another set of waves, ending in a particularly impressive one that crashed over the bow, all slow-motion-like, sending a bucket full of water into my lap. Words cannot describe how delightful this feels initially, with a heightened sense of satisfied pleasure as the icy wetness encroaches on every bit of skin from the waist down.

Courtesy of Chuck at cwanderlust.com

At this point I was blessed with a resurgence of optimism. Or perhaps it was a cocktail of adrenaline with a shot of numbness. Only a couple miles to go. Soon the foundation of the old Point Pleasant bridge would appear, a beacon of hope in the distance. Any. Minute. Now. Surely around this next bend. Rats ‘n crackers, where is the darned thing?

These weren’t the words I actually used. I wish I knew a greater variety of curses, because I wore out everything in stock.

Courtesy of Chuck at cwanderlust.com

The sixth mile, the remnants of the bridge appear. Not even too far in the distance, because dusk was lowering its evening blanket over the watery corridor. Magnificent and menacing. Too cloudy for star or moonlight – how easy is it to recognize an unlit boat ramp in the dark?

Mile seven, a span with a number of cottages and docks lining the water. My legs and arms are shaking. Not from cold, but from pure exhaustion. I don’t remember the last time they felt like this. Well, I do, but that’s another story.

The fashion police cometh

There it is! Never shall the sound of keel grating on cement sound so melodic! Out I jump, not one prissy thought of dry feet in mind, for I had had the foresight to have a dry pair of socks and sneakers waiting with my bike! Here’s the funny part: me congratulating myself on my wisdom about the footwear after the brilliant decision to make the journey.

The fun wasn’t over. I went to lift the 75-pound kayak to drag it to the grass for later retrieval. My arms and back screamed, the kayak just watched in amusement. I stumbled around in tall weeds to reach my bike (and cozy footwear), avoiding leg-shattering ditches.

Someday I will write an ode to dry socks.

A second wind kicks in, the personal variety! A seven mile bike ride on the canal path won’t take that long. I fantasize about hot beverages and dry pants. That’s when it started raining. Not a lovely little sprinkle. Ambitiously sized raindrops dive bombed the earth, so heavy that it was surprising not to see craters where they hit.

Dinner is served

Surprising too was how fast I could ride back to Frenchtown from Bull’s Island. It was full-on dark when I arrived at the car. I leapt off the bike and hoisted it to the rack. More accurately, my mind envisioned that smooth hoisting motion. The bike was twice as heavy as when I loaded it. Summoning super-human strength I wrestled it into position. Then the gunshots started.

Great. After surviving there and back, I’ll be mistaken for a deer and end the day strapped to a roof rack.

Wait! There are flowery bursts of color accompanying each gunshot – it is a fireworks display at the Frenchtown bridge! Oh frabjous day, I chortled. For ten shining minutes every fiber of my being forgot the tribulations of recent hours and was mesmerized by shiny sparks showering good wishes on new beginnings.

Courtesy of Chuck at cwanderlust.com

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Time Is Like Milk

Bright summer day in the woods, blinding sparkles from a New Hampshire brook catch the eye of a five-year-old adventurer. He splashes into the shallows, never mind the wet shoes (that he’ll whine about later). The crisp water wants him, wants him now. Miniature waterfalls bouncing over boulders fill his hands with pure delight.

Water flows like time...photo courtesy of Chuck Whitmore, cwanderlust.com

And there, right there! The most perfect rock….no, not a rock. Clear, blue, heavy, seductively smooth, a window into another place if he looks hard enough. A treasure, to be sure. “Mom, Dad, look! Look what I found!” We smile at his joy, at his naivité.

The week flows on, with walks in sun-mottled woods and breakneck wild rides down the mountain on the alpine slide. A trail ride in the woods with my daughter, the two of us lulled into calmness by horse hooves thumping the trail. While we moved from moment to moment, the boy’s experiences are anchored by the treasure in his pocket.

We were unaware of the preciousness of this object. A week after the trip my son came up to me, business on his brow. “Mom. This thing I found. I know it’s worth something, worth a lot. How do we find out how much?”

I had had no idea of the importance of that moment of discovery to him. A deep breath lends time to dismiss practicality. And to find the fine line between preserving his perception, yet tell the truth. I explained the concept of appraisals, and how the world defines what things are worth. But, dear boy, there are things that no one can put a value on. Some things are worth so much, they are called priceless. And that is what you have found.


He kept that piece of sea glass, that priceless, timeless remnant of yesterday, safe in a secret place for years. In fourth grade, wonder washed out by worldliness, he recognized the glass for what it was. By then it had indeed been infused with value. He created a display filled with shadows of memories. A ticket stub from his voyage to England. A foreign coin. A saved drawing of a hungry monster. And the precious piece of glass. A title created from poetry magnets: Time Is Like Milk.

It is. It makes no sense. No logical connection. But it is. And it’s perfect.

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Camera Shy

Lake at sunrise (photo by Lisa Braden)

“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” ~Minor White

Some will be happy to see that previous blog entries are New! and Improved! with photographs. Even I must agree that visuals vastly enhance the posts. Some of them were actually taken by me, and there are many incredible contributions from friends, who went through the effort of carrying their cameras around and remembering to use them.

Good photography takes time and patience. I’ve taken photography courses, played in the darkroom, and watched talented artists at work enough to appreciate the energy that goes into making an image. I have spent hours making a drawing, months building sculptures, and years designing a house; the capacity is in me. It takes me an hour to write something that can only partially describe what a photo can do in a moment. But when I’m using the camera lens to describe a scene, it feels contrived, and never seems to capture what I’m feeling at the moment.

Fisherman at sunrise (photo by Lynne Davidson)

For the last three weeks of my time in San Pedro I was awake before dawn (really!) My window overlooked the lake, so I could lay in bed and watch the sun rise. How hard would it have been to have had the camera on the nightstand, and snapping a lazy shot each day — or even once? Fortunately, Lynne and Lisa have a stunning collection of photographs that they’re willing to share, and I am ever grateful.

I’m torn now. Based on the photos I took this trip, I may not bring the camera next time. Or I could experiment and see where the photographic road leads.

Posted in Creativity, Guatemala, Photography, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Righteous B-Ball

Fun for all ages.

El Centro is the busiest piece of real estate in San Pedro. It´s in front of the municipal building, behind the market. By day it´s a school yard and by night it´s the hottest b-ball court in town. We´re talking DJ with boss speakers, vendors, and mayhem, lots of mayhem. The teams are from local school and churches; from what I understand, which is probably not that accurate, there are championship games in town and amongst the surrounding pueblos.

The games I´ve seen seem to be Catholic vs. Evangelical. They´re rough, as if the final proof of righteousness is at stake.

Loser be damned

First the men´s teams play. When the action is at one end of the court, kids wander out on the opposite end to shoot hoops. During time outs, the kids swarm the court, playing basketball and soccer, teasing and fighting. All ages together.  There is a lot of scoring and aggressive defense. Remember that these are not a tall people — I have more height than most of the women, and some men.

Next come the women´s teams. Last night Maria, the mother in my host family, was here because their church team was playing. During the game she couldn´t stop laughing: fights amongst the players, missed balls, scores, and brutal falls, especially the later, caused her and her friend to double over with laughter. The DJ plays loud music the entire evening (the students who live in this area love it, simply adore it), mostly disco, with miscellaneous songs thrown in for good measure. Ghostbusters is playing now. He interrupts the music for spurts of play-by-play announcements, but only during the women´s games. It´s hilarious, and the crowd loves it.

You go girls!

YMCA just came on! I´m using all of my willpower to avoid dancing right now. People are singing along!

The standard of living here is pretty basic. I live with a middle-class family, and it took some getting used to. Many families here tonight live in shacks with a dirt floor and walls that don´t meet the floor or each other. Holes in the roof. Two small rooms for 7 or 8 people. Get the idea?

El centro by day

You´d never know it by being here. You can judge the economic conditions, but there is a wealth of community that I´ve never seen in the US. Most of the people here will live their entire lives together, watch out for each other, keep an eye on the kids (no such thing as a babysitter here), help out if it´s needed, and laugh together on b-ball nights. I´m kind of jealous.

Posted in Community, Family, Guatemala, Ordinary Life, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tuk Tuking Around

A mild-mannered tuk tuk, or so it seems (photo by Lisa Braden)

My goal for the next three weeks or so is not to be killed by a tuk tuk. They´re cute, and most putter along reasonably, but there are some that are vicious little killing machines. And you never know which ones they are.

Simple, easy transport, right?

The streets are narrow, with many twists and turns. And there are no sidewalks.  You learn to sense the approach of vehicles from behind. This is a little easier while heading up hill, since none of the engines here have quite enough horsepower to gain any speed going in this direction. Watch out for the down bits, though. The drivers want to take advantage of gravity, so by the end of the run they´re flying, sometimes literally, with potholes and speed bumps in strategic places. On the tourist street there are blind turns every once in a while, designed to keep the tourist population under control. Yesterday there was an angry little swarm of the things in a face off on a one-way street (there is not an agreement over which way is the one way).

Chicken à la tuk tuk.

I took a tuk tuk to San Juan to check out the textiles there during my long lunch break. Usually I have two hours, but there was a big soccer match today (Madrid, Spain beat Lyon, France, btw) and my teacher requested to change our class time to accommodate the game. So I jumped in the tuk tuk, which needed to make a detour through the central part of town to get on the main road. A large delivery truck was parked at one main intersection, which encouraged a game of chicken amongst the tuk tuk drivers. My guy was not very good, so we had to wait an additional three seconds to get past the truck. Everything is slow here, relaxed and happy, except for those precious seconds saved by beating the other guy around an obstacle.

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Life on the Water

Purple haze, sunrise on Lake Atitlan (photo by Lynne Davidson)

Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America. You can swim in the details here:

Rough day on the lake

Lake Atitlan

Statistics are certainly fun, but you can attain giddy heights of nerdishness when you are at the place and know the stats. On Saturday morning the school had a kayak excursion on the lake. It had been windy and wavy all week, but fortune smiled upon us, with only a soft wind blowing, and just enough waves to make it fun and a couple of people slightly seasick.

It felt good to paddle around with no particular destination. We headed toward the San Pedro volcano, and I reconsidered my plan to hike to the top. Very high, very steep. There is, however, a good chance  I will forget this information as quickly as I forget my verb conjugations.

View from Las Cristolinas

As you float you get another view of life in San Pedro. Women come down to the lake to wash clothes, since running water is a luxury and washing machines a rarity. I see women from the poorer part of town walking back up hill with towels around their heads, since this is the only way they can wash their hair. There are roads around the lake and some are in drivable condition, but the lake is the roadway for people and products. Fisherman are out in ancient wooden boats, and gallon containers tied to strings mark the location of crab traps. Terraced farms climb the lush sides of the volcano, much the same as they’ve been for hundreds of years. The lake provides water, recreation, food, beauty, and sometimes destruction.

Don't you hate when that happens? (Photo by Lisa Braden)

The lake is rising. The old ones tell of a 40 or 50 year cycle where it rises, then recedes.  Since people as a rule like to ignore things like this many businesses and houses were abandoned when the water started knocking on the front door. There is no homeowners´insurance here, so if you’ve followed the folly to build close to the lake, you´re living elsewhere now. So you can kayak amongst tree branches and float in the former front yards of pretty lakefront in-lake houses. Oops.

Canoes along the lake

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Where the Streets Have No Name

This is that place. It´s probably as big as New Hope and Lambertville combined. With no, totally nada, street names.

Street scene, San Pedro la Leguna

If you want to visit I´ll explain to go up the hill on the street of the Santiago dock, before it gets crazy steep, just before it splits on the way to the market. I´ll have to meet you there, because then we´d have to go down the dirt alley, take a right, then a quick jog to the left, past the little store (if you take a right here there´s a super-secret way doing down the path of broken concrete to the street with all the tourista stuff). A little further we go, past the vacant lot with a barbed wire fence  (which they just replaced on Saturday, very nice!), hang a right, be careful not to bang your head on the low-hanging mangos, and here we are.

View from the rooftop

Of course, we are speaking in English here. I went to visit a friend in San Juan, the next town over, on Thursday evening. We went to a cafe to watch a movie. I was in Spanish with subtitles that were partially in English, partially in French. Many of the translations were half a sentence long — it became clear that there is a drastic need in South America for a good subtitle writer (it´s nice to have a goal for my Spanish now!)

Afterwards Sabine and I wandered into a variety store, one much bigger than the ones I´ve seen in San Pedro. We spent an hour perusing a bunch of school books, until I realized I had no easy way of getting back unless I caught a tuk tuk, pronto. After four tries with drivers who thought I was made of quetzales, the local currency, I was able to find one for five quetzales, the normal rate. Q5 is about 70 cents, so I was splurging on the ride, since the pickup truck I caught on the way there was only Q2, or 28 cents.A tuk tuk is a scooter with a covered chassis that holds two people, or up to seven if you´re particularly close.

Seatbelts? Who needs 'em.

The pickups, or carros, collect a dozen or more people who stand in the back, hanging on for dear life to the welded frame. Well, I was. Everyone else was nonchalant about it.  But I have my moments of drama. It´s particularly fun on the road between towns, because of the potholes (which could swallow a pony) that the drivers swerve to avoid, causing another swerve to avoid the cliff on the side of the road. They have no need of artificial thrill rides in Guatemala.

It's hard to find a good fixman bone these days.

Anyway, it was easy to ask the driver to go to San Pedro and head to the big white Catholic church near the market, since I could give directions from there. Fortunately I had just learned directions that morning. Unfortunately I chose to goof around in the afternoon and had not memorized the words for left, right, straight. Or stop. Fortunately, if you wave your arms excitedly it indicates to the driver that a change in direction is imminent. ¡Aquí, aquí! means left, and ¡Aquí, aquí! means right. And then you just yell ¡No! if it´s the wrong way.

I made it home, which I suppose some of you have been wondering about. I´ve promised myself to learn my directional vocabulary, well, sometime soon. It´s trivia night at one of the cafés later, and there are priorities. My team is counting on me for grammar tidbits.

Posted in Adventure, Guatemala, language, lost, Ordinary Life, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments