Run to the End of the World and the Zoo Too!

Twelve weeks had come and gone so fast.  In my spare time I had been training, running, getting read for the End of the World half marathon in Placencia, Belize.  This country’s only half marathon/full marathon.  I love to run, but I knew this island was not really designed for it, so I dedicated my exercise time to my other favorite, Crossfit, and ran but only once or twice each week.  As the year went on though, I really wanted to train for a distance race.  So, back in September, through impossible heat, then rain, through mud, and puddles the size of lakes I ran, tiptoed, and waded my way to my 13.1 mile (21 km) goal.

So the day before the race, we were up and off to what is the beginning of all trips, the ferry.  Somehow we scored a big covered boat and I tried to sleep my way to Belize city.

Ferry Ride

It was then into a rental car for the three and a half hour drive south.  Along the way we stopped in the tiny capital city of Belmopan and finally got to try the infamous Farmhouse Deli for lunch, and it did not disappoint!  Best carrot cake in a long time for sure. I hear they are soon coming to San Pedro.

Farmhouse Deli

The drive down the peninsula into Placencia was also the route for the half marathon, a point to point course starting to the north and ending in the village to the south.  Those running the full marathon would need to start in the village and turn around where I started, then run all the way back again.  We checked into the hotel and settled in for the night.

My alarm went off at 3:55 am on race day.  After eating the breakfast I brought along and double checking that I had everything I needed, I was getting out of the car at the start line before 5 am.  Enough time to check in, use the porta potty, and warm up.  My legs felt good.  Nervously I stood in the dark amongst the strangers at the start line, this would be the fourteenth time that I had lined up for a race of this distance or longer, but still I had the jitters.  Would it be hotter than I thought? Would there be enough water?  Did I run fast enough in those speedwork sessions?

Then we were off.  Immediately I was passed by the majority of the 167 runners in the race.  I was tempted to chase, but of course I knew better.  There was plenty of time for that.  For now I needed to stick to my goal pace.  I was not aiming for a personal best, I didn’t feel that I was in my best running shape.  But I didn’t come to play either, I came to do the best I could without the wheels falling off by mile 9!  Once the dawn broke I could start to see the views.  I soon ran past a private community that looked nothing like the real Belize, houses worth more than entire communities.  I then started to see the ocean on both sides of the peninsula with the sun rising on the left and little mountains behind the ocean on the right.  After having trained on cobblestones and pot holed dirt roads and hard cement slab, the asphalt felt like soft heaven under my feet for the first time in a year.

Race Course Views 

Slowly but surely I began to pass other runners.  I often ran with two young Belizean guys that were near my pace.  Without really knowing it, they helped me a lot by providing a mental distraction to the physical pain.  Soon we were entering the gritty little community of Seine Bight.  The kids were up early on a Sunday morning to cheer us on.  I caught an american tourist from Denver there and stayed with her for a few minutes.  It was still a little too early to push hard if I had to, plenty of miles left for that.  She let me know she thought she was in 4th for the ladies and that made me 5th.  She told me she went out hard to run as far as she could before the sun came up but now she was hurting.  Then I pulled away and she didn’t follow.

Running

Seine Bight

I could see the guys that I was trying to keep up with just ahead, and keeping my same pace I overtook a young Belizean woman who had stayed far ahead of me for about 10 miles but was clearly slowing now in the heat. As we approached the air strip I was feeling good.  The sign here cracked me up, luckily I did not have to pause for a takeoff!

Placencia Airport

“STOP.  All vehicles must give way to aircraft landing and taking off.”

I also ran over at least twenty of these!

Speed Bump

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Soon I could see the finish line, I could hear “Go Sam!” and I sprinted to the end, finishing just a little faster than my goal with an official time of 1:53:15.

This race was not chip timed, it was done the old fashioned way by hand.  So, we had an awards ceremony later after the full marathon finished and up until then the placings were a bit of a surprise.  There was a little drama and a discrepancy and then the disqualification of a runner that had tried to cheat the system.  When all was figured out I was awarded 3rd Overall Female.  A result that I was very satisfied with.  My legs told me that I had tried hard.

Awards

After the race was over, I had a little time to explore and experience Placencia.  The village is an odd configuration of little shops, beach front hotels, and original homes.  The views are spectacular and the people are friendly.  I thought it was a great place to spend a weekend.

Placencia

The following day, I woke up sore.  I had plans though to see one of the last things in Belize that I wanted to do but had not, the Belize Zoo.  We were in the car and headed back north.  The Belize Zoo is a small zoo with a big heart.  They have goals of education, conservation, recreation, and research.  They house only species that live here in Belize and end up with a lot of injured or non-releasable wildlife that would otherwise have nowhere to go.  The zoo and enclosures were heavy in plant life, most being full of natural trees, plants, and flowers.  I got to see and learn about many of our most famous creatures.

Tapir, Belize’s National Animal

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Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s National Bird

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Harpy Eagle

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Margay

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Jaguar

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Jaguarundi

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The whole weekend was a great experience, but I had a clear favorite memory.  As I sprinted to the finish line of the half marathon sweating and out of breath, the announcer yelled into the megaphone, “Samantha English, San Pedro” and for just a moment I was a Belizean representing my little town.

I couldn’t have been more proud!

The Smile Says it All!

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Habla Ingles?? My tour of Central America.

Living as a vet in Central America is not all dangling legs and tick fever!  One of my non-veterinary goals of moving to Belize was to see all of the countries of this vibrant continent while I was here.  A few months ago I started contemplating how I could make this happen.  Who would be a good travel partner and have the time to go on this journey with me?  I decided excitedly to contact my sister Alissa in Canada, and after much discussion she said yes!  We spent months planning our budget tour.  Between my work and her family we decided on sixteen days.  Due to our time constraints and my previous visit to Tikal, we decided to forego Guatemala so she could see my home country of Belize. Belize is also technically an English speaking country, but for this trip I would need to try to get by on the spanish I have worked so hard to learn over this past year.

Panama

We began our trip at the southern most country, Panama.  We flew separately, meeting up at our first hostel in Panama City around 11 pm on a night in early October.We chose to save money (Belizean vets are, shockingly, not rich!) by staying in hostels.  Instead of staying in big loud dorm rooms, we booked a private room with our own bathroom at each stop, which is a great tip for budget travel.  I was second to arrive, and asked my sister if everything was ok.  She replied “Yes, but our toilet has no door!”  And so our adventures began.

Our first day in Panama was spent visiting the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel.  They provide a short movie to explain the history of the canal (in which we accidentally ended up in the spanish showing…did I mention Alissa speaks zero spanish?) as well as a very interesting museum.  Many products we use and buy every day come through the Panama Canal.  We did not get to see a boat pass through, but it was still pretty great.  We were at the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side.

Panama Canal

We got our hostel shuttle bus to drop us off at Ancon Hill in the afternoon and we walked to the top to see some great views.  We then walked through the oldest area of the city and made our way home on foot.

Views of Panama City

On day two we were up what we thought at the time to be “early”, which turned out later to be practically sleeping in.  Our pre-booked tour arrived to get us at 5:30 am to head to the San Blas islands.  These tiny islands are still inhabited by the indigenous Guna Yala people, and although you can visit, they do not allow any modern development.  We took a wild ride in a van (one co-passenger was able to hold on until we pulled over for her to vomit), followed by transport by small boat.  The day was spent with a mom/daughter from Peru hanging out on the beach and swimming in the warm waters.

San Blas Islands

The next morning we were off to the airport to take a 1 hour flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.  This allowed us to avoid wasting precious time trying to bus out of Panama.

Costa Rica

We arrived by plane not fully sure of what we would do for most of the day.  Our plan was to take the afternoon bus to the town of Monteverde/St Elena.  We were dropped off at the bus station early in the morning to first buy our tickets.  It was then that we found out that the location had changed.  We managed to find a taxi, who tried his best to trick us into thinking that the buses were on strike and we needed a very expensive shuttle that he could arrange.  This of course, was untrue.  He dropped us off at a mall where we found the buses and easily bought tickets (and by “easy” I mean I used my best spanish to get by and hoped for the best).  We decided that based on the safety level of San Jose (about zero) and the interesting things to see (also zero) that we would stay in the mall and read until our bus came.  I also managed to unknowingly drop my wallet in the bathroom, and although I realized it quickly and got it back, I unfortunately lost all of my Colones (local currency) which I had just obtained at the airport.  Rookie mistake, take note, don’t drop wallet!!

The bus ride to the small town of Monteverde was relatively short (about 4 hours) but required lots of Dramamine (for motion sickness).  We were happy to finally arrive.  Our B&B/hostel was amazing, more like a hotel room.  We were high up in the cloud forest (higher than the rain forest) and so it was much cooler, and of course, raining.  It was so humid that anything you hung up to dry out actually got wetter.  Our first day was spent ziplining through the forest.  Alissa had never been, it was my second time trying this out.  Although we were soaked from head to toe and all the way through, we had a blast flying from treetop to treetop.  We went tandem twice in the pelting rain, with me yelling “Tell me if he signals to slow down!”, and her yelling, “I can’t see anything!”.    That same day we booked a night walk to try to spot some of the local wildlife in the dark.  We reluctantly put our wet clothes (we each brought 1 pair of pants on this trip) back on and headed out in a group with a guide.  Without him we would have been stumbling around in the dark seeing nothing but trees.  With him we saw a kinkajou (really cool), sloths, toucans, a green viper, an orange kneed tarantula, and more!  It was amazing.  We forgot about our wet misery.

Ziplining and Night Hike

The next day we decided on a self guided tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. We caught a local bus to the reserve and got a map.  We spent 3 hours walking the trails and managed to see an agouti (very very big rodent), coatimundi (related to raccoons), and about 8 different local species of hummingbirds that they feed near the gift shop.

Cloud Forest

Getting out of Monteverde affordably is not the easiest.  We had already purchased a bus ticket from Liberia, Costa Rica to Granada, Nicaragua, but we needed to get to Liberia by 9 am first. The local bus leaves Monteverde at 4:20 am.  Yup.  You read correctly. We knew that we had to get off somewhere along a highway called La Irma and then stand at the side of the road and flag down a bus to Liberia. It turned out to be easier than it sounded and by mid morning we were on the Tica bus from Liberia to our next country, with leg room and air conditioning included.

Nicaragua

We arrived successfully in Granada, the oldest colonial city in Central America.  This was our most affordable stay, paying $10 US each per night for a private room with a fan and bathroom.  This was also the first hostel that didn’t even pretend they might have hot water, there was just one tap in the shower. Our first morning was spent on a guided walking tour of the city.

Granada

 

That evening we used the same tour company to take us as part of a group to the Masaya Volcano, a short drive from town.  This is an active volcano and one of the most amazing sights of the trip.  Each vehicle waits at the entry to the park at the base of the volcano, then they allow a certain number to drive up at a time.  Once arrived we had twenty minutes to view before rushing back down.  It was amazing, very rocky, and the lava looked like waves in an ocean.  Although it was bright orange, you could not feel the heat.  It was mesmerizing.

Masaya Volcano

The next day was for relaxing, a massage, trying the local dish “quesillo” with tortilla, crema, and onions, and enjoying the constant happy hour 2 for 1 drinks.  The average price for a cocktail was $1 US.

Our next day would be our longest of travel.  We needed to get from Granada to the capital city Managua in time to catch a bus that would travel through Honduras and into El Salvador.  We were up at 2:55 am.  WHAT?   Yes, you read correctly.  I longed for a day we could sleep in until 5 am!  We boarded another Tica bus for the long haul, with multiple border crossings.  I tried my best but couldn’t always understand enough spanish to know exactly what was going on.  We also learned that you may need to show proof of Yellow Fever vaccination to get into Honduras if you’ve been to Panama, luckily we brought that along!  Borders were also where I saw some of the worst cases of dogs with injuries, broken legs, missing feet, big scars.  It made me realize how lucky we are here in San Pedro to have Saga Humane Society.

Driving to El Salvador

El Salvador

We finally arrived in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, after dark.  It was too late to catch two more local buses to our destination, so we gladly hopped in a cab to the tiny beach town of El Zonte. Our spacious room was a bit like a tree house.  We were ready for bed.

Although we wanted to start enjoying our short stay, we were detoured by the realization that there was no bus out of El Zonte on the day we needed to leave.  How were we going to get to our next location?  We decided to catch a ride to the neighboring and larger tiny town of Playa el Tunco to see what we could come up with .  Indeed, no shuttle or bus.  We did speak to an operator however, who taught us how we could do it by a taxi and multiple buses and we decided to try it.  As a side note we enjoyed the beach, the food (love papusas), and a little shopping before returning back.

Unexpected Side Trip to Playa el Tunco

Now, how to get back to El Zonte without a taxi?  We asked around and found that a local bus would pass at 12:30 pm on the main road, just wave and jump on for $0.25 (El Salvador no longer has their own currency and uses US dollars). Side note: All the $1 coins that the US mint made that Americans refused to use ended up in Central America.  So, this was a true chicken bus minus the chickens, and 15 minutes of our life that will not likely be soon repeated.  We stood up and held on for our lives while people got on and off, sometimes jumping in and out via the back emergency door of this green school bus.  We didn’t understand how to pay, we got our feet trampled, and we laughed the entire way.  Finally we jumped off as the bus slowed down near our road.

We came to the beach in El Salvador to see the black sand beaches, they did not disappoint.  Everything that looked like mud was really black sand and it dried to the colour of asphalt. These beaches are for serious surfers, but I tricked my sister and signed us up for a surf lesson, her first time trying.  With the help of our local pros we were bruised and battered but we had a blast.  This was a beautiful surf hostel.

El Zonte 

After only 1 full day in this beach paradise we were up early and off to try out our instructions to getting to Honduras. We headed back to the capital via taxi to catch a big bus into Honduras.

Honduras

After a slight mistake with being led to the correct bus company at the wrong location we were on the bus towards Honduras.  To our surprise we were served some breakfast, chocolate strawberry crepes, soon after departure.  The bus was headed to the big city of San Pedro Sula but we were to get off before that in La Entrada.  After many hours we were dumped off at the side of the road with our packs in tow, in search of a local bus to our destination of Copan Ruins.  We were soon crammed into a small shuttle van with 15 locals (including many men in straw cowboy hats) and our packs strapped to the roof for the 1.5 hour drive.  After 1 quick switch to another van we arrived.  The little town of Copan Ruins is located just a few minutes from the Mayan ruins site themselves, and this is why we came.  After asking around we found our hotel on foot. The streets were real cobblestone and very steep.  We had a delicious local dinner.  Our “hotel” was quite old and a little musty, but the best part was showing my sister how to use one of these.

Shower Head Heater

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How these are legal I don’t know.  But the look on her face was priceless.  The tape, the string, the wires, the slight electrocution, awesome.

The next morning we were off and walking to the ruins.  I have seen quite a few of these in Belize and Guatemala but every site is very different.  A guided tour is always best, but our budget was to wander around by ourselves with our travel book.  There was also a program to reintroduce the native Scarlet Macaw to the area.

Copan Ruins

We loved all the Mayan architecture and the birds, but we actually had to get back on the road the afternoon after we arrived.  You can see us riding in a local crazy taxi/scooter to get to the bus.  This next bus was not quite a “local bus” as everyone had a seat, but far from luxury.  We were headed for the big city and stopped dozens of times to pick up more people with one man hanging out the door to entice them on to ride with us.  One of us whispered to the other giggling, “Should I ask when they are serving the crepes?”.  Hmmm, maybe not.

Finally we arrived at a huge bus station in San Pedro Sula, often referred to as the most dangerous city in the world.  How welcoming.  We came here only to sleep the night and catch a plane.  We quickly caught a taxi to our hostel and found it to be in a safe neighborhood (as planned) and very friendly.  This was our most expensive stay at $25 US each for the night.  We had an amazing room and another scary shower head heater (that worked).  Ahhh, hot showers.

The next morning we were off to the airport, and after a quick stop and search by the police for unknown reasons we were up in the air and off to my home country of Belize!

Belize

Alissa would soon have to go home, but I wanted her to get to see where I live and work.  After she hopped on a borrowed bike to accompany me on a training run down south (a great way for her to experience our rainy season giant puddles) we were off and riding our bicycles up to visit the weekend farmers market and explore up north. We made time to tour my workplace Saga, to eat local BBQ, and to walk the beach front.

San Pedro

After 16 days of fun our trip had come to an end.  I got to add four new countries to my passport and my sister got to add six.  We experienced so many exciting locations and adventures.  We collected a bracelet from each country as a memento, but we collected tons of memories to last a lifetime!

What a Great Trip

We went to places we’d never been in a language we barely speak and had a great time doing it.

A Mexican Ordeal

When you decide to live on a small island in the Caribbean, you give up many conveniences in exchange for great weather, a new culture, and beautiful scenery.  Many things are an inconvenience. Paying bills one at a time in cash by hand is inconvenient.  Attending emergencies at night on a bicycle is inconvenient.  Looking for a mushroom that costs less than a week’s pay is…never mind, I digress. So, imagine you need some paperwork signed by a doctor and there’s no one in your entire country that’s qualified to do it.  That’s when inconvenience becomes an ordeal!  So, I had my choices of where to go, and Mexico City won out as the easiest and cheapest option.

I had to figure out how I would get myself to Mexico City and back, alone, without missing any work.  I formulated a plan.  I had been very sick at the start of the week, the kind of sick where you wake up on IV fluids in the back, back, back, room of a local clinic. So, it was a long busy week at work and I knew I had to finish on time Saturday at noon to make it happen.  Saturday morning came and I had lots to do.  Of course, things rarely go to plan.  My technician Ingrid was already away and I was trying to manage my appointments on my own.  Immediately I had a snag, the dog who’s broken leg (a small non displaced fracture of the femur bone) I had splinted the night before was back.  She had handily removed the entire bandage, sigh. She needed heavy sedation to put a new one on.

Luna’s Broken Leg

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If you remember the dog at the end of my previous blog, he had a good part of his foot missing.  That dog also needed heavy sedation for continued work to bandage and add tension sutures to encourage the wound to heal and start to close.

Foot Improvements

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There were vaccines to be done, health certificates for travel to be filled, and a dog brought in by the owner’s friend for weight loss, with no knowledge of the owner’s last name, the dog’s information, or any money.  Once I got this all squared away, I raced home on my bike to finish packing.  Soon I was in a cab with my favorite taxi driver Marcos, on the 5 minute drive to the airport.  Luckily the airline had a sale after hurricane Earl and so I was able to get out by plane instead of by boat!  I checked in, no ID required, and waited for my 9 seater to take off for the mainland.

Boarding Pass

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When they called for “Red” I was ready to go.  Up and away to Corozal, Belize.  We landed 20 minutes later in a field next to a tiny building and I climbed into a pre-arranged taxi to take me across the border to Mexico.  Out of the van, walk out of Belize, into the van, back out to get stamped into Mexico, back in the van.  Then a short drive to the airport in Chetumal, Mexico.  So far so good.  Then a quick two hour flight to Mexico City and I was safe and sound in bed by 11 pm.  All in Spanish, of course.

So, I had all day Sunday to play tourist.  Mexico City during the day is not the danger trap that many people envision.  There is, however, virtually no English spoken.  Unlike Belize, it’s pretty much Spanish or nothing.  I was ready to put mine to the test.  I woke up early in my tiny room with no windows but with a superb location and headed out.  I was shocked and unprepared at how chilly the evenings and mornings were.  I first stopped at a local cafe.  The window was full of delicious pastries.  I decided on a biscuit with jam, yogurt with tropical fruits, and a Mexican hot chocolate.

Breakfast

From there I walked around to see the sites.  One of the most famous is the Zocalo, a huge square in the city that contains many historical buildings including the Catedral Metropolitana, a huge old catholic cathedral.  It was Sunday morning and so a service was underway, it also seemed that it was baptismal day, as there were numerous babies in fancy white dresses.

 

In another part of the plaza was the Museo del Templo Mayor.  This temple was one of the main Aztec temples in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.  Some of the temple has been unearthed by archaeologists and it is now known that many more layers of temples exist under what is now the cathedral.  First I walked the path along the ruins, then entered the building where they keep many of the treasures and human sacrifices that have been found over the years.  Maybe it was the doctor in me, but I was mesmerized by the skulls, bones, and teeth on display.  I could have stared for hours!

Ruins of the Templo Mayor

Statues and Skulls

I also walked with the crowds through the streets and markets.  I came across the area where large murals are displayed, these where incredible.

Murals

It was lunch time and I was hungry.  There is so much delicious street food in Mexico it’s hard to know where to even start.  I spotted a stand making fresh blue corn tortillas for tacos of various sorts.  I took a deep breath and tried to be brave.  When you don’t understand the language completely and you can’t recognize all the items it can be intimidating, but how else can you get the real experience if you don’t get out of your comfort zone?!  I stepped up and managed to get a chicken and a goat (or sheep?) taco with juice.  I was directed to a long communal table to eat with the locals.  It was everything I had hoped for.  For dessert I decided to try something that looked good but I had no idea what it was.  I ordered one.  It later turned out that the inside is jicama and the red sparkles are a type of chamoy (like a sweet/sour/salty covering).  The taco lunch was $2.72 US including the drink.

Lunch

I needed a nap.  Back to the hotel.  Hmmm, what next.  Not yet dinner but only a few hours to spare.  Well, I’m going to admit it, I took a taxi to Walmart.  I have to say, going into a real mall was overwhelming.  The people, the noise, the shoes!  It’s been a long time.  So, I ventured into Walmart, looking for some things that are impossible to find or terribly expensive here.  I wandered around for over an hour just amazed at the “stuff”.  Finally, mascara and pyjamas in hand, I headed back.

For dinner I had selected the oldest restaurant in town, Hosteria de Santo Domingo.  They are famous for the national dish Chiles en Nogada, which is served here year round instead of just the traditional Aug/Sept.   It is a poblano chile (not spicey), filled with shredded meat, dried fruits, and spices, then deep fried in a light batter, covered in a walnut cream sauce, and topped with pomegranate seeds and parsley, appearing red, white, and green as are the colors of the Mexican flag.  It was interesting and very good.  The margarita was strong enough to make me sweat.

Guacamole and Chiles en Nogada for Dinner

I spent the first half of Monday fulfilling the reason I came all that way.  Afterwards, I headed to one of the famous museums, stopping in the park outside for lunch.  I tried another street food where the man cooks ears of corn right there over the fire, then adds the kernels to a pot of soupy corn.  He scooped that for me into a cup, added lime juice, a small amount of mayo, some cheese and spicy chili powder and I was ready to go. Yum.

Esquites

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Unfortunately, I forgot that all the museums etc are closed on Mondays.  I met a cab driver who offered to take me to a different part of the city to what I understood in spanish to be some gardens, he claimed they were open and then after he would drop me at the airport.  I don’t recommend getting into these situations, as you always end up paying more than you should, but I dreaded getting to the airport 5 hours early, so I decided to hop in.

He took me to a place called Xochimilco.  I was surprised to arrive and need to get on a boat!  This is an area of Mexico City full of a canal system that connects various fields of flowers and greenhouses that are growing plants for commercial and private sale.  Tons and tons of flowers and the people growing them use boats and the canals to get around.  There are also tourist boats to take you on a tour, along with boats selling goods, food, beer and with mariachi bands.  Each boat is pushed by a man with a long bamboo pole.  There is definately some bumper boats going on as you can’t steer.  It was actually really fun.

Xochimilco

That evening I flew back to Chetumal, Mexico.  I had a quick sleep at a local hotel.  Then got up early Tuesday, taxied back and walked across the border into Belize, caught another tiny plane, and had time to get home, eat breakfast, and be at work at 9 am to start a new week!

Having to go far into a neighboring country for a simple task was certainly an ordeal.  But it is unlikely that I would have had this great adventure otherwise!

 

 

The Real Cuba and a Whale of a Detour

What does one do when they need a break from their own island in the Carribean?  They go visit another one of course!

Ah, Cuba.  A Canadian holiday institution.  You go from plane, to shuttle, to resort and drink at the beach until you can drink no more.  I had absolutely ZERO interest in going.  My travel partner, however, wanted to see the real Cuba before, well, the Americans invade.  And so, I was persuaded to give this island nation known for socialism, cigars, and old cars a try.

So, we set off first by boat to Chetumal Mexico, then by ADO bus to Cancun for the night.  No complaints here, Mexico means tacos and what could be better than the real thing.  In the morning we boarded our plane and landed quickly in Havana.  Cuba currently has 2 forms of currency, essentially one for tourists (CUC) and one for locals (CUP).  They’ll exchange American dollars but with a stiff penalty, they’d prefer Canadian or euros.  The prefered language is of course spanish, even a little goes a long way.

There are some government run hotels but most travellers that are not resorting it will book a stay in a Casa Particular, this is a room in someone’s private home.  There is often a/c and a private bathroom attached.  These are government regulated and big business in the tourism sector, somewhat equivalent to a bed and breakfast.  Our first casa was in Old Havana, where we stayed for three nights.

At first glance, Havana appears to be stuck in the automotive past.  The promise of old cars was easily fulfilled as we saw many American cars from the 1950’s and Russian vehicles from the 70’s and 80’s.  Newer vehicles where often little known brands from Asia.

Cars

We spent days walking around Old and Central Havana.  Down little streets where people still live and work, filled with dogs playing, old ladies smoking cigars, and often interesting smells of sewage.  There were plenty of monuments, old buildings, forts and churches to appreciate. The heat was nearly unbearable at this time of year, but luckily we’ve had plenty of practice!

Churches (Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis; Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana)

The Fort (Castillo de la Real Fuerza)

There is plenty of old interesting and sometimes colorful architecture to see as you walk along.

Habana Viejo (Old Havana)

We visited a variety of Museums while in Cuba, about 6 in all.  It helped me to learn the history of their country in relation to where they are in present day.

Museo de la Revolution and Museo Napoleonico

Drinks and food are relatively cheap, just perhaps not always easy to find.  Stores are not easy to come by and restaurants are not always where you’d expect them to be in a tourist area.  We did enjoy plenty of rum.  I would say that as a food destination, Cuba is only just starting to come into her own, but we did enjoy some tasty treats.  I will say that I may never need to eat another ham and cheese sandwich though!  We most often ate breakfast prepared by the lady of the house at each Casa that we stayed in.  We also sometimes enjoyed a home cooked dinner of pork, rice and beans, sweet potatoes, flan, and fruit. One of my favorite dishes was “fried  garbanzo beans”, which had chick peas, tomato sauce, and sausage. I ate so much tropical fruit I nearly turned into a mango.

Food and Drinks

We then boarded a Viazul bus for the 4 hour ride west to Vinales.  This is a valley town and national park that is recognised with Unesco World Heritage status.  We stayed at another Casa here just a short walk from the main street with a view of the mountains.

Our Casa Particular and View

The main thing to do here is go on a tour in the National Park.  The valley part of the park is still used for farming, mostly for tobacco.  Laws for the park state that no chemicals can be used here, nor can tractors or mechanized equipment.  All the work is still done by hand, horse, and oxen.  Although cars are common, horses are used everywhere for work and transportation.  Farmers are required to turn over 90% of their product to the government. In this area they also grow some fruits, nuts, and coffee mostly just for their own use. Tours of the tobacco plantations are offered mostly by horseback.  As my travel partner has an aversion to this, I found myself sitting precariously on a sliver of wood (referred to as a “buggy) with two full grown men and a horse named Simone.  It was comical to say the least, but a really great morning.

Tobacco Farming

We also visited a cave in the park and walked well inside by flashlight.

Cave of Silence

After two nights in Vinales we were on the bus again for the eight hour journey to Cienfuegos.  Here we spent a full day exploring the town square and looking at museums.

Cienfuegos

We then returned to Havana for a night before catching a flight back to Mexico.  Cuba is changing and more change is coming fast.  I enjoyed the artistry, the history, nature, and the language.  It is by no means an easy place to live, there are definitely many challenges under the current regime.

The fun, however, was not quite over.  From Cancun we easily took a short ferry ride to Isla Mujeres.  This is a small island, but is a quickly growing tourist destination.  For a great price we had a view like this.

View from Hotel

Really, the whole place is beautiful.

Isla Mujeres

 

But, what they are really famous for, is snorkeling with whale sharks!  Every year from about May to September these giant beasts come swimming by about 30 miles offshore.  As the name implies this is a shark that looks like a whale. The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. They grow up to 40 feet and 10 tons.  They feed on things like fish eggs and plankton, opening their giant mouths and directing water out through their gills.  On the list of things to do and see in this world, swimming with whale sharks was high up there for me.

So, I got up early to set off alone to meet up with my group from Mexico Divers.  After a slight incident on the dock involving me, skinned knees, a jammed toe, and a bruised ego, we were off.  Although moderately medicated I was still feeling the severe effects of motion sickness, but hey, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wasn’t going to let anything ruin it!  I was not disappointed.  Although we were warned it could take hours to find one fish, we arrived in the area to find many other tour boats and dozens of whale sharks swimming around.

My Boat and Some Fins in the Water

We quickly organized into teams of 2 and each took turns with 1 of 2 guides getting in the water to snorkel (scuba diving is not permitted with these animals by law).  As soon as my face went in the water it was like a dream.

Whale Shark!

The guide Jenny would sometimes grab us by the hand to get a closer look, of course NO touching is allowed.  Their tail was enormous, as was the mouth when they were feeding.

Tail and Mouth

It wasn’t easy to keep up with these giant fish.  You had to swim hard, plus try to get pictures, I kept telling myself silently in my head to remember to enjoy it.  What an amazing experience!

Whale Shark Videos

So, if you dare, try travelling around to see what a country really has to offer.  Not just what the resort or the cruise ship shows you but the REAL thing.  You might be surprised, you might even like it!

 

 

 

MASH style clinics. Tails from Honduras.

This month I got to fulfill a decade’s long dream to practice mobile outdoor medicine in a developing country.  I was invited by my Belizean counterpart Dr Orlando Baptist to join up with the group Helping Paws Across Borders out of New Mexico.  We traveled to the Spanish speaking island of Roatan, in Honduras, to take part in a week of free exams and surgeries.

Roatan

 

Each day we rode 50 minutes in a van to reach our destination.  Our first location was in Oak Ridge.  With a team of 4 vets, 4 techs, and about 10 support staff we set up a mobile clinic.  This included areas for exam, pharmacy, anesthesia induction, surgery, and recovery.  At this location I did hundreds of exams for vaccination, deworming, and heartworm/flea/tick prevention.  Most of the dogs tested were positive for heartworm, which is spread by mosquitos.  Many dogs were also infected by a tick born illness called ehrlichia which causes a variety of symptoms and eventual death.  I also did some spay/neuters and a mass removal here.

Examination and surgical areas

Recovering from surgery

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Our second location was Spanish Hill.  Here we were able to move the surgery into a tiny room normally used for Sunday School.  The pastor and his wife were kind enough to provide us with food and facilities.  Hundreds of people showed up with their pets.

Sign in and surgical room

I performed many surgeries here and was lucky enough to have the spot just inside the sliding glass door.  This meant more natural light but also provided me with an audience of curious children, as well as often having to act as the security guard while spaying dogs!  Some of the animals were pregnant or had pyometra (uterus infection).  Multiple dogs also had tumors from a sexually transmitted disease called TVT.

Surgery and dogs waiting their turn

I have never been so hot, and sweaty in my life.  The work was physically and emotionally demanding.  People came from various communities and waited many hours to be seen.  The local Hondurans were truly appreciative of our efforts to help improve the quality of life of their animals.

Ready to go home after recovering from a spay

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I went home home dirty, bloody, and exhausted every night and loved every minute of it.

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If this type of work is something you have considered doing, I highly encourage you to find a group and go for it!  We had many medical and non medical volunteers.  I look forward to the next time.