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Guatemala, Travel

Scorpions and Scuba Diving – A lesson in Fear

Entire scuba class underwater

Scorpions and Scuba Diving

I promise that Guatemala: The Guatemalan Grind (part 3) is coming. But first, this has been my life the last week and feels more prevalent right now. And, you guys are involved in this one!

One of the things – nay, my favorite thing – about traveling is the accompanying personal growth. Every adventure, every change of the routine; it pushes you outside your comfort zone a little. Only outside of this bubble, when exposed to new stimuli, do we learn about ourselves. Even when you ‘fail’. Especially when you fail.

I once saw an “ask me anything” on Reddit featuring Ron Pearlman. He says, “Make failure your friend. Once you do that, you can’t lose. If you regard every failure as a victory, all you will ever know is victory.”

Fear, my old friend.

Fear is a companion we all live with. Fear tells you to quit, that you aren’t good enough, to just give up. He is the negative that holds us back. Personified as ‘mean brain’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘self-doubt’, all the way to the whisper of basic biological instincts: ‘if you aren’t above water, you’ll die’. In any form, fear is something we all must conquer daily, or it holds us back. Therefore, fear (and the conquering of) is the biggest driver of personal growth.

After the incidents in Mexico City, fear told me to quit, to just go home. It would be easy, and I would be back to where I was comfortable. And Fear wouldn’t be tapping on my shoulder [as much]. Conquered with the help of my mother, I found myself in Guatemala. As expected, plenty of fear here too – but not the kind we have back home.

New Kinds of Fear

Guatemala has presented me with unique obstacles I’ve never encountered in the states [or in my travels]. To date, the scariest incident of my life was my near-kidnapping in Vietnam. It took several days of not leaving the house to shake the jitters that almost brought me home. Without the safety offered by my host family, I most likely would have come running back to my mother. Here though, I struggle against the environment, and against myself.

Scorpions – fear at home

Home is where you’re safe. Home is security, where the heart is, and all that cliché craft-fair stuff, right? We’re not supposed to be afraid at home. Guatemala has offered me a first-time experience in this area. As you know, Hayden and I have rented an apartment here. An apartment, unbeknownst to us, to also be home to several scorpions.

Generally, I try to leave wildlife alone. Spiders are a perfect example – they’re just on the job, people! Let them do their civic duty, they aren’t hunting you. Back home, the spiders and I, we have an accord. I am not going to bother them unless they are in my way. If I need to shower, I’ll start the water and give them a chance to make themselves hidden. If they don’t, well, then I sick Girl Baby on them and they become cat lunch. Mostly though, we live in harmony. Scorpions, however, that’s a different sting. (See what I did there? Hehe)

The Highland Scorpion 

A dead highland scorpion
He deeeeead!

Guatemala is home to the Highland Scorpion. While not the biggest or deadliest of the world’s scorpions, a scorpion is still a scorpion – meaning I only like them fried, seasoned and skewered in Thailand. I’m told that a scorpion sting is comparable to a bee sting, but I don’t care to find out for myself.

Hayden and I spotted a few scorpions within the first few days of staying here but tried to simply deter them from wanting to be our roommates. It was fine…until they broke our pact. Scorpion #1 died after being forcefully flung from my arm and slammed into the dresser.

Central America boasts a rich cultural heritage of the legendary Mayan people. Its colorful presence and mystics surround you like an aura wherever you go. There is a saying that it’s bad luck to kill a scorpion and that if you do, two more will take its place. Well, the voodoo is strong here and, sure enough, after killing the first one we quickly encountered another [bigger] one. These little suckers are fast, so we opted for a quick smoosh from a shoe rather than trying to capture it to put it outside.

Hopefully, his buddies will see his crushed body and won’t come around…. either that or we’ve angered the Gods and are going to be stung to death in our sleep.

Assuming we get any. Every brush of fabric on my skin is a scorpion.

Scuba Diving – fighting your own biology

Me scuba diving in lake antitlan throwing the peace symbol
Despite the hand signal, I did not feel ‘at peace’!

The point of this post is, we’ve all been in situations where we need to conquer ourselves – we are what is holding us back. I’m very familiar with this dance with myself and often “go Spock on it”, using logic to overcome whatever wall I’m hitting.

 It takes more than logic to fight biology.

Here at Lake Atitlan, Hayden and I planned to complete our PADI open water dive (OWD) certification. The certification consists of various parts:

  • Confined (pool) water dives & skills test
  • Swimming fitness test (10 minutes treading water, 200m swim)
  • Classroom instruction with quizzes and final exam
  • Open water dives & skills test

Back home, Hayden had already completed the confined water and classroom portions of the course. For him to retake the course here with me would be the same as simply completing the open water dive for the certification back home.

You may have seen on Facebook, but O.M.G is it a struggle.

Day 1

Our instructor told us this, but it took my head being 10 ft under to believe him – the brain tends to freak out a bit when underwater. Everything you [think you] know bubbles right up and out of your brain with every exhale. Humans are not underwater creatures (though there is some debate about that).

We [humans] like to be breathing through our noses and our mouths while being upright. In scuba, none of that happens. You are not standing. “Up” is subjective, and air comes from one (ONE) single place.

We started our confined water dives in a shallow part of the lake. About 3 minutes in, I was ready to quit. I felt panicked, air-starved and scared.

Mind you: This is after we’ve spent the last 20 minutes huffing and puffing our way into our 7mm wetsuits. Here in the lake, a wetsuit is not an optional luxury but a requirement. It was the first time I’d put one on, and like everything in scuba, it was way harder than I thought it would be.

After a few minutes of sitting underwater learning to trust the regulator, I managed to push through it – and I’m glad I did. We performed basic drills: taking your mask off then putting it back on and clearing the water from it, removing your gear and putting it back on, etc. etc.

Slipping out of our suits without the grace of the penguins we resembled, we spent that afternoon watching 3 straight hours of PADI video classroom footage. It was a real treat to use a TV!

Day 2 – kick it up a notch

Day 2 started with the wetsuit jig, followed by swimming skills. I was relieved to find out I could pass the physical fitness part of the test. We practice a few more skills in the shallows, then hopped on a boat and zipped out to “Aguas Caliente” (“hot water”, geothermal springs) for our first open water dive.

Zach took us along the floor of the lake and pointed to areas where we could stick our hands in the mud and feel the hot water coming through. It was an enjoyable dive, but I was so focused on not sinking nor ascending, breathing, and making sure to stay near everyone that it was edged with anxiety.

After about 30 minutes, it was time to make our safety stop and ascend to the surface. I won’t go into detail about the ensuing humiliation of getting back into the boat! LOL

Day 3 – 3rd time’s the last time

You guys seriously pulled me out of bed for day 3.

A screenshot from Facebook showing a selfie and all the supportive comments from blog followers
P.S THANK YOU GUYS FOR ALL THE SUPPORT <3 I was so touched by the outpour of encouraging comments and messages – I’m not sure I could have gotten back in the water without you <3

Despite your encouragement, I knew day 3 was going to be a hard one for me. A culmination of soreness, anxiety, a pulled back muscle, and exhaustion from the ever-choppy lake water, all spiraled into resenting scuba.

The day began as usual – the wetsuit jig, equipment checks, hauling our crap down to the dock to get into the boat. We make it to the dive site, Casa Del Mundo (locally known as the Underwater Hotel as it used to be above water before the lake rose) and assume the position on the boat to fall back into the water. 3…2…1…Drop.

At this point, we inflate our vests to keep us at the surface. I reach for the control device and it isn’t there. A gasping “Help!” brings Zach over and he manages to grab, inflate it and then chew the rest of my team out for not checking me. Later reviewed footage shows that the control device was in place, so the impact of the water when we fell in must have dislodged it.

I signal to him that I’m okay to descend, but I’m still a bit shaken. I spend the next hour puking a little in my mouth and using 90% of my brain power to breathe and make sure I don’t float the surface. We practiced drills more – taking all our gear off and putting it back on. Taking our mask off, swimming 30m and then putting it back on and clearing it (that one was super scary, talk about trust in your divemaster). We even learned to breathe from a free-flowing regulator (constant air). All at 50 ft. underwater.

By the time we got back in the boat, I was done. Something I struggle with personally is that when I hit the “done” wall, that’s it, I’m done. When I got out of the boat on shore, I was done. I wasn’t the only one who was shaken – Hayden was feeling a little psyched from the endless depths of the lake, so instead of completing another dive, we called it a day. We would do the final dive on Tuesday.

I am not a mermaid…but I am Scuba certified!

Hayden and I set out to complete our Open Water certification. This would allow us to go to any PADI shop worldwide, rent scuba equipment and go dive somewhere up to 60 ft down. When Tuesday rolled around, and it was time to complete the last dive of the course, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Big time kudos to Hayden for reaching his goal.

Zach was wonderful in addressing my concerns and finding a solution that better suited me. He was able to certify me at the Scuba level vs. the Open Water level. The difference is that I can only dive to 40 ft. and I must be accompanied by a divemaster. I am never, ever, ever planning to dive alone so that’s just fine!

While I didn’t get my Open Water certification, I’m happy with my Scuba level certification. If, if, if (okay maybe that’s too harsh…when) I go diving again, it will be with a divemaster somewhere tropical, calm and free of 7mm wetsuits. I’ll love all the coral and the fish. I’ll love the clear movie-blue of the water and I’ll feel compelled to upgrade my certification.

When that time comes, I’ll be ready to jump into the deep end – past 60 ft.

Thanks for reading, and being with me every breath.  <3

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Guatemala, Travel

Guatemala: Lake Atitlán

Continued from Part 1

The shuttle from the airport took us to a tiny town called Antigua. We booked yet another shuttle to Lake Atitlan….and missed it! The departure time of 12:15 was lost in translation. Buying another ticket, we spent the hours getting lunch, a massage (for me) and pricing out scooter rentals (also for me lol). At 4 pm we departed for Santa Cruz.

Arrival at Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan at Sunset

On the shuttle, we met a man from Colorado.  It was his first time in Guatemala too. He was heading to San Pedro, the little village across the lake from Santa Cruz (our destination). In San Pedro, he was doing a homestay to learn Spanish. Placed with a local family, they would provide his room, board and plenty of Spanish conversation. It lifts my heart when I meet people (especially Americans with the way things are lately) who are seeking out culture exchange.

After that, I slipped into a merciful Dramamine coma, as I was starting to become one with the Guatemalan roads – twisty, mountainous and dizzying. When I awoke it was dark out. The time was about 7pm when the driver shouted, “La Iguana!” That’s us! Time to get off. We followed the driver down a steep hill to a rickety dock. Directed to a boat, the captain helped us put our bags on atop while we shakily climbed inside (I’ve since gotten my sea legs and could board these things in my sleep).

Praying our bags would make it, we zipped across the lake. Shattering the black mirror of water beneath us, the breeze was cool and the passengers quiet. Except for the guy who sat next to me.

My family jokes that if we are the only customers in the entire restaurant, the next set of customers will, out of all that free seating, sit next to us. Seriously, its like a curse. I have the Hoffman-Allure even here it seems.

Initiated by a compliment to my dreadlocks, we chatted with a man who, as it turns out, is the resident musician at the hostel next to ours.  When the boat slowed at a dock announced as “Santa Cruz!” he led us to his hostel where he introduced us to the owner (henceforth known as the Witch Doctor Man). They invited us to return the following night for ladies’ night. We never made it – a huge storm brought the power down right after dinner.

Arriving at our own hostel, La Iguana Perdida, we were escorted to our room by a gentleman from Cleveland, Ohio. Even now, countless states and countries south of home, it’s a small world. Entering our room, we changed into PJs and collapsed for the night.

The Iguana Family

We spent the next 6 nights as members of the Iguana Family. I say “family” because the hostel’s missive is an environment of interaction. No internet, nightly family-style dinners, plenty of activities (trivia/costume/open mic night) and intentional opportunities to make connections.

Our first connection was with a couple from London. They recognized my tattoos from various Hayao Miyazaki movies, which outed them as fellow nerds.

Side Story: On the way to Mexico, an elderly couple recognized my Burning Man tattoo since they’d been several times themselves! Burners are so nice. All I need now is a trekkie to recognize my communicator tattoo.

We only had one night together because they were leaving the next day  – but it was probably the best night I’ve had on this trip so far. The conversation flowed like music across bars of politics, entertainment, travel stories, and an extended bout of life-threatening-laughter at a picture Hayden would prefer I didn’t share (but see below).

Hayden found himself atop a hill in Santorini, Greece with the perfect opportunity to take a picture designed to scare his mother. Asking a stranger to take the photo, if all had gone according to plan, he would have looked as if he were hanging from the side of the city. Here we have a photographic example of “lost in translation”. BAHAHAHA

Laughter really is dangerous here. The elevated air is so thin that too much laughing simply ends in gasping. Note to self when traveling with Hayden in the future: avoid high elevation.

That night, we had an intruder come in through the window. Normally, one would not like to be joined in the night. But in this case, I was delighted to be encroached upon by the hostel’s resident feline, Chicago (though we didn’t know that was her name until the day we left. We called her Poco for “little”).

Nightly, Poco continued to slip in through the window for some face/pillow snuggles. I guess even she couldn’t tolerate the feel of the hostel bed springs poking you in your soft parts through the mattress. By the 6th night, we were ready to move on.

Casa Sweet Casa

Through conversation with other travelers, we learned that Costa Rica was going to be more expensive than initially estimated. It was even compared to New York! Yikes. Beaten down by the bumps in Mexico City, along with no desire to stress about money, we opted to look for a place where we could have our own kitchen and create an affordable extended stay. Venturing deeper into Central America was discussed, but the idea of reliving Mexico, or sleeping blanketed in the fear we felt in Guatemala City was a big deterrent. Lake Atitlan offers a safe, quiet, restful paradise where we felt no need to fix what wasn’t broken. Through Airbnb, we met a local couple who own three apartments just up the hill from The Iguana. All it took was a quick tour and amazing price to seal the deal.

To be continued ….

Guatemala, Travel

Guatemala: Machete Paradise (part 1)

DISCLAIMER: This may be upsetting to some readers. To the moms reading this, don’t worry – we are safe.

A Brief History

No, this isn’t some sort of weird-Al parody. That would insinuate we are in gangster paradise, which we are not. But we are in machete paradise.

At its core, a machete is a farming tool. Useful for chopping trails through thick brush, variations of the machete are used by cultures and civilizations all over the world. While it seems in North America we simply use the machete for entertainment purposes, the machete is still a popular multi-tool here in Guatemala…and it’s a little unnerving.

Safety In Guatemala

After the rough start in Mexico City, we were wary of coming to Guatemala. It didn’t help that Guatemala is ranked “reconsider travel” on the US Travel Department’s website. Crime is, of course, a factor in the ranking system, but a large weight of it is the ability of the US government to intervein on your behalf should something happen. Only recently establishing any sort of political stability (following a 30-year civil war), Guatemala is struggling with widespread corruption, extortion, volcano disasters, and heavy drug trafficking.

Disembarking from our flight into Guatemala City, we leave the airport on foot for our hostel. We’re going to stay there one night to get our bearings before entering the logistical foray of making it to Lake Atitlan. The area surrounding the airport is zombie-apocalypse-grade deserted. Between our blue location dot on Google Maps and destination is a high concrete wall topped with razor wire and doorways shadowing guards with pump-action shotguns. We discover this wall encloses a small compound of hostels and hotels for both citizens and touristisas alike. Finally finding the front gate, the guard lets us through. At the hostel we are greeted by an incredibly friendly man from Belize. His impeccable English gives us the freedom to ask how quickly we can get Pizza Hut delivered….because we were not going back outside the compound.

Making Friends

In typical American fashion, we got (2) pizza(s) delivered. Eyes bigger than stomachs, we made friends with the various Latinos that were milling around by sharing our slices. They all accepted our offer graciously and were very thankful.

The following morning, we awoke to a text message from Hayden’s mom – “Call me.” A news channel ran a story that morning that a bus full of tourists was boarded, the driver shot, and the vehicle commandeered. Doing some research of our own, it turns out this has been happening since 2009 with over 900 bus drivers being killed at the crime peak in 2013.

Gangs are extorting the bus companies for money and if the company doesn’t pay, their drivers pay the price with their lives. We vowed to only take private transportation for the duration of our stay.

Author’s note: No ONE should have to worry about seeing their bus driver murdered on their daily commutes. Because the bus was full of white tourists, it’s suddenly newsworthy. This has been going on for OVER A DECADE. I know things are hot in the states right now surrounding immigration, but this is one example (of dozens I’m sure) of why people might want to seek better lives in the USA. Even during the latest Chicago night, I wouldn’t have ever worried about any sort of attack on public transit. Maybe we can make a little room in both our hearts and our country, hmmm?? Here are 12 great ways you can help refugees – not all of them involving money. 

Having made friends via pizza, we got a ride to the airport the next day and were escorted directly to the driver of a shuttle who would take us the next leg of our trip….into machete country.

To be continued ……

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