Passepartout and Packing Light

First of all, I would like to introduce you all to my new traveling companion Passepartout. Owls represent good luck here in Central America and so small and large ceramic owls abound. I wanted a little partner for my travels and he seemed perfect. I named him Passepartout after Phileas Fogg’s faithful valet and traveling companion from the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. It seemed appropriate. So far Passepartout has accompanied me to Mexico, to the east coast of Guatemala, and to Belize.

Due to the fact that I am always looking for travel things on the internet, travel-related articles frequently pop up on my Pinterest and Facebook pages. Often there are articles about packing light: what to bring, what not to bring, how to pack in a carry-on, etc. I frequently read these articles and think, Wow that is still way more stuff than I would bring. I don’t think I actually pack particularly light, but apparently I pack lighter than some. Every trip I pack lighter, it seems.

Today I am packing for four days in Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica. Now four days is a long weekend, by no means a serious trip. But I don’t pack a whole lot differently than I would for two weeks or three weeks away. I like to pack light because I always end up carrying my belongings more than I expect to. On this trip in particular I’m motivated to pack light because on my day-long layovers in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I’ll be carrying everything with me as I sight see between flights. So I’ll share here what I’m bringing on my trip south through Central America.

Clothes:

4 shirts (no extra clothes allowed. There was a time when I would bring whole outfits I didn’t need “just in case,” but I don’t do just in case anymore)

Zip-off/convertible pants (can be pants or shorts and they dry quickly)

Swim-suit (not pictured but I am bringing one)

Two pairs of socks and two pairs of underwear (On this particular trip I know I’m going to be at the same hotel for three nights, so I’m bringing enough for Sunday and Monday. I’ll wash today’s and Sunday’s on Sunday night which will give me enough for Tuesday and Wednesday. If I were moving every day I would have to bring enough to last at least until I could find a laundromat)

Scarf (for dressing up a little if that becomes an issue, head covering/shoulder covering if I need to be a little more modest for something, light blanket for the plane if I get chilly, sarong/beach cover-up…it serves multiple purposes)

Teva sandals (beach shoes, river walking shoes, shower shoes. They are good for lots of things.)

I am wearing jeans, tennis shoes and a tank top, plus my Fitbit/watch. I decided against bringing a jacket, finding it unlikely I will get cold on this trip. A jacket is a big commitment for me, I have to really feel like I’ll need it to warrant the space/weight.

Toiletries:

Small bar of hotel-stolen soap (I only use this if the place I’m staying doesn’t provide soap. Even hostels frequently do. But I have a backup if not)

Shampoo and conditioner (I only fill the mini bottles halfway up for a short trip like this. I don’t need much for four days and it saves on weight)

Toothpaste, toothbrush and dental floss

Deodorant

Hairbrush

Razor

I’ve pretty much stopped wearing makeup so I don’t bring any of that. No hair products either. I’m pretty easy going.

First-aid items:

Being a nurse, it’s hard for me to not try to prepare for the worst possible scenario. Instead I try to bring enough to make myself feel well enough to get to a pharmacy and get what I really need. So for this trip (and this doesn’t really change for longer trips) I’m bringing

Three Epi-pens (I am allergic to bee stings)

Four Pepto-Bismol tablets

A small container with Tylenol, Ibuprofen and Aleve

One dose of Dayquil and one dose of Nyquil

Three band-aids

Six Cipro tablets (Antibiotic. Treatment for traveler’s diarrhea)

Two tablets of Benadryl

Miscellaneous:

Water bottle (empty through airport security and then refilled. Unfortunately drinking fountains are not an option in Central America, so that means buying water. But this bottle stays tighter in my water bottle pocket, so its preferable to the ones I’ll buy)

Passport

Passepartout

Kindle (no hard copy books. The Kindle is so much easier and lighter)

Headphones

Phone charger (my Kindle and Fitbit both have long enough battery lives that I only bring chargers for them for longer trips. I just make sure they’re fully charged before I leave)

Laundry bag

Quick-dry towel (small, lightweight, good for beach or anywhere else that I might not have provided towels)

Earplugs (Central America can be notoriously loud.)

Plastic bag (good for all kinds of things. Wet swim suit seems to be my most common use, however)

Rain-cover for my backpack

Portable day pack (I love this item so much. REI special, it folds into a tiny pouch smaller than the palm of my hand and unfolds into a good-sized day pack. I use it if I’m going out for the day and have more things than will fit in my purse: lunch, water, etc. It’s so small and light I can justify bringing it just in case. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a trip and not used it)

Sunglasses, journal, wallet, two pens, emergency phone number list

And that’s it. Everything listed here easily fits into my purse and carry-on bag. In fact my carry-on bag is less than half full. If I were going on a longer trip I would bring enough clothes for a week, and plan on washing clothes once a week for the duration of the trip. Pretty much everything else would stay the same, except for maybe a jacket or sweater if I were going to be in a colder climate.

I’m going to Guatemala City in a few hours to spend the night in a hotel, then I fly out to Nicaragua early tomorrow morning! Don’t forget you can follow me on Instagram. I post more pictures and updates there than anywhere else.

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Future Travel Plans

Hello, faithful readers, it’s been forever. I am still in Guatemala, living in my little Antigua apartment. I’ve made some good friends here, mostly Guatemalans but a few expats as well, and am enjoying my time immensely. My Spanish has improved significantly. In one-on-one conversations I can generally hold my own in Spanish; I usually understand somewhere from 50-80% of what is being said. In group conversations its a bit more challenging for me, but I’m learning more every day. I’m no longer afraid of going into businesses by myself because I’m confident enough that I can negotiate even semi-complex transactions alone.

I will be heading back to the US to return to work at the beginning of April. I’ve decided that although I love Guatemala and firmly believe that I will end up yo-yoing back here for the rest of my life, right now, at least, is not the time for me to stay permanently.

The next two and a half months, however, hold some exciting things for me. I am a sucker for good flight deals, and with so much time on my hands I’ve been able to find some excellent sales.

First of all, this coming weekend I will be going to the east coast of Guatemala with a group of travelers, some Guatemalan, some from other nationalities, that all found each other on CouchSurfing. I have been to this area before, in July, but my visit was somewhat brief and I look forward to exploring it further. We will be taking a bus from Guatemala City to the town of Puerto Barrios and then a boat to Livingston, which is on the Caribbean. Livingston is an interesting place, accessible only by water and inhabited by the descendants of shipwrecked slaves. It has a culture that is unique in Guatemala, much more similar to Jamaica than to the Spanish/Mayan culture common to the rest of the country.

At the end of the month I’m taking a short trip to Panama, by way of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I’ve discovered that it is frequently possible to take long layovers without paying more for the ticket, allowing me to explore extra places at no additional cost. In this case I will leave Guatemala early in the morning, then arrive in Nicaragua by mid morning. I will have five or six hours to see Nicaragua before I have to go back to the airport to catch a flight to Panama. I will spend two days in Panama, seeing the Panama Canal and exploring Panama City, then catch a flight to Costa Rica, where I will again have several hours to explore outside the airport before I catch a return flight to Guatemala. I’ll tell you, nothing motivates packing light like knowing all your luggage has to come with you on sight-seeing layovers!

My next trip will be in mid-February. This is my most recently planned trip; Avianca Airlines had a spectacular sale and I couldn’t resist the tickets which were less than a quarter of what they would normally cost. I’m going to Peru, to see Machu Picchu, which has long been a bucket-list item for me. I will spend two days in Lima, the fly to Cusco. The next day I will go on a two-day trip to Machu Piccu, one day to Agua Calientes, the town nearest the ruins, and then one day to see the site and return to Cusco. I also tentatively have tickets to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the mountain across from the ruins in all the iconic Machu Picchu pictures. The following day I am going to go to Rainbow Mountain, a location about three hours drive plus a three hour hike from Cusco where the landscape is an array of fascinating colors. I am very excited for this, although I am slightly concerned about the altitude, another reason I chose to do this trip now rather than wait.

Here in Antigua I am at 5000 feet elevation, which gives me an edge over coming to Peru from sea level. I have previously been up to 11,000 feet elevation here in Guatemala in Alta Verepaz in 2007 and suffered no ill effects, although people I was with had symptoms of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is fairly common among tourists in Cusco, which is also at 11,000 feet. Machu Picchu itself is at only 8000 feet, so Cusco is the concern. For me, the concern is Rainbow Mountain, the hiking portion of which starts at an elevation of 14,000 feet and ascends to a maximum elevation of 16,500 feet. For reference, the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington State is 14,409 feet and base camp at Mt. Everest is at 17,500 feet. This elevation is certainly high enough to cause issues for people ascending from sea level and even for me, with two days of adjustment in Cusco and coming from 5000 feet, its a concern. I will likely take altitude sickness medication preventative and hope for the best, because I really want to see this area.

My next trip will be in March. This is my long-planned trip to Paris, Ireland and Madrid. I will have three plus days in Paris, where I will do all the touristy things and also meet my penpal Samantha for the first time. Samantha is French and we have been penpals since we were both eight years old, so twenty years. It will be fun to finally meet her in person. Then I will head to Ireland where I will spend ten days doing a whirlwind tour of the country in a clockwise direction. Then I have a long, sight-seeing layover in Madrid and then return to Guatemala.

I’ll only be back in Guatemala for about a week before I return to the US, but even my US return is not without some sight-seeing. Because there’s a concert I want to see in New Jersey in the beginning of April, I am taking the long way home via two days in New Jersey/New York. One day will be spent with the concert, and then the following day I’ll do New York City, seeing as many iconic sights as I can in a 12 hour period or so. Then I’ll return to Seattle to go back to work, find an apartment, buy a car and become responsible.

But fear not, my travel does not end there. I am already planning a spectacular trip for November, but those plans can wait until next time!

New Apartment!

My little sister and Reanna were gone by Thursday evening and on Friday I hauled (with the help of my Guatemalteco friends) all my stuff from the hotel in Guatemala City to my new apartment in Antigua. I unpacked everything, settled in, then found La Bodegona (Antigua’s everything-you-need-in-one-place store) and bought some simple groceries for dinner.

Yesterday I decided to walk up to Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross) which is literally right behind my apartment (GPS on my phone lists it as 600 feet away, but the walk is closer to a half mile). I had read online various reviews suggesting that the walk was strenuous, or unsafe, but with the crowds of people headed up on a Saturday morning, i couldn’t have felt more safe and although my heart rate got up a little with all the stairs, I reached the top only a little out of breath.

The view from Cerro de la Cruz is breathtaking, looking out over the valley of Antigua across to Volcan de Agua on the other side. I decided I would make this climb daily, as a good way to start my mornings.

Last night, at the suggestion of a friend since it was International Observe the Moon night, I went up to the roof top terrace and laid on my back and stared at the moon and the stars for a while. There were bats flying around overhead and I lay there and listened to the randomly-ringing church bells (if someone can explain to me the church-bell-ringing scheduled in Antigua, that would be great) and was just still.  Those of you who know me know that stillness is not my strong point often. But I was still. It was refreshing to say the least.

The beauty of Antigua with the colonial buildings and the mountains and the diversity of the people still takes my breath away. If you want to see more pictures than just what I post here, follow me on Instagram where I post a lot more: annakfierce.

Antigua and Volcan de Agua from Cerro de la Cruz

New apartment bedroom

New apartment kitchen

Hello Guatemala! (day 2)

I’ve been in Guatemala for just over 48 hours and so far, so good. I had a beautiful view of the city as I flew into La Aurora International Airport. I haven’t flown into Guatemala in the daytime before so it was nice to catch some views of the volcanoes that surround my new home.

Fresh off the plane I dropped my bags at the hotel (too early for checking in!) and went to Pizza Hut with some of my guatemaltecos. Then I relaxed at the hotel for a couple of hours before heading back to the airport (on foot!) to collect my friend Reanna who is visiting this week. Upon arrival at the airport, we caught C. D. Suchitepequez, one of the top professional football (soccer) teams in Guatemala leaving the airport to cheers from the crowds and several news cameras. I’m probably in the background of some Guatemalan news shots looking confused.

On Friday morning, I went with my friend Kevin to Antigua to sign the lease on my apartment. We went via chicken bus, always a fun experience, and arrived just in time to meet the real estate agent I had been in contact with. Then I met my landlady and saw my apartment for the first time. It was just as the pictures had shown, very cute and clean with a shared roof-top terrace that has views of the volcanoes. The landlady speaks no English and the real estate agent, Diego, only a little, so navigating conversations in my broken Spanish was a challenge.

After I saw the apartment, we all walked across Antigua to the office of a lawyer/notary public, who was drawing up the lease contract. They talked a lot, and I talked a little, and the lawyer drew up our lease. I read it over, trying to make sure I wasn’t signing away my first born child, and understood most of it. We signed the contract, then I told them I needed to go to an ATM to withdraw my money for first months rent. Finding an ATM proved to be a challenge, and then when I was able to withdraw money, I discovered that it won’t let me take out more than 2000 Quetzales every day, which is only half my rent (about $266). In hindsight I should have planned ahead better but I didn’t know there was a limit.

So my backup plan was to exchange the dollars I had with me for quetzales, so we went to two different banks before we found one that didn’t have a huge line. I was so grateful for Kevin who speaks Spanish (but not English) and helped me navigate Antigua a little. The bank only accepted about half of my $20 bills, however, because the others were not in good enough condition (they’re very picky about the condition of bills). So I was about 1600 Quetzales short on my rent.

The only thing I could do was to go back to the landlady, who patiently waited in the lawyer’s office, and explain the problem and apologize profusely. She was very nice about it and we agreed to meet on Monday in the apartment for the remainder of the rent money and for me to get my keys. I was embarrassed to get off to a not-so-professional start with my landlady, not the first impression I wanted to make. But she was nice about it and I will be more conscientious in the future.

Today Reanna and I took a relaxing day, sleeping in, breakfast at McDonalds down the street from our hotel and then sunbathing/swimming (and getting a little burned, because, tropical sun) by the pool.

My sister lands here in Guatemala City in 17 hours!

Going away

So it turns out, in order to go somewhere new, you have to leave where you are now. Who knew?

At first when nostalgic feelings came up, I shoved them away. I was afraid they were feelings of regret. Afraid that if I were REALLY ready to go I would feel nothing but happiness about leaving. But one of the most important adulting lessons I’ve learned in my 28 years (happy birthday to me!) is to acknowledge and identify emotions. Whatever they may be. 

So I realized: nostalgia, emotion upon leaving a place you call home, is not a bad thing. It’s only an acknowledgement of happiness that exists in a location or with a group of people. So in my final two weeks stateside, I am embracing the duality of my emotions: excitement for the adventure ahead, and sadness for the one being left behind. 

On Sunday I spent the morning at a patriotic 9/11 memorial that my sister, a member of the police honor guard, participated in. Then I went back to my home town, where I grew up, and saw an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years. Then I went to a lovely going-away party thrown for me by my aunt. It was the perfect day to celebrate what I am leaving behind: my country, my home, my family. 

T-15 days. 

What to pack

Following that post on materialism and how I don’t need to bring four water bottles to Guatemala (I’m mostly going to drink Gallo anyway), I thought you might be interested to know what I am bringing.

First, a note on what I’m bringing luggage-wise. I’m flying United Airlines to Guatemala, which I usually do, and they have a $50 fee for more than one checked bag. Now, I might be willing to pay this in order to take more with me, but I really feel like, on principle, I should be able to live for six months with just one carry on bag and one checked bag. I think any more than that and I’d end up with a lot of stuff I wouldn’t use.

So I am checking one rolling duffel bag that I’ve had for probably ten years, and my trusty Tortuga backpack. A word about Tortuga backpacks. I bought this prior to my last trip to Guatemala and I love it. I can’t say enough good things about it. First of all, it is carry-on sized, even full to the max it fits in the standard airline carry on requirements. It has sturdy, real backpack straps and a solid hip belt, so when you have to walk over cobblestone streets and sidewalks full of “gringo traps” to your hotel, you won’t be cursing god halfway there. The straps also fold away easily so if you do check it, it won’t get snagged on everything. It opens like a suitcase, holds a TON of stuff and has handy pockets including ones in the hip belt (phone, keys, passport, etc.) and a designated laptop pocket. And, bonus, I just discovered it is on sale for only $124 (usually $199). If you’re looking for a good, travel-the-world, go-anywhere bag, I would highly recommend Tortuga.

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The picture below shows everything I am bringing with me (and yes, it all fits in my two bags, I checked). Mostly it’s clothes but other highlights include a mosquito net (not too many mosquitoes in Antigua because of the high elevation but if I do any traveling to other parts of Guatemala, I may want it), journal, a couple of books (Eat, Pray, Love and A Town Like Alice, plus two kids books in Spanish for the nephew of a friend of mine), shoes (the boots I’m wearing on the plane, there’s no way they fit in the luggage!), rain jacket, laptop computer, my Cocoon sleep sack (handy for so many things, and folds up so small), a few toiletries and a few other miscellaneous things. Every time I sort though what I’m bringing, I take a few things out, realizing that I likely won’t need them and they’re more like a security blanket than anything else.

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What are your best packing tips?

Lessons Learned…or learning

Why do we travel? What is it that brings out the wanderlust in our souls?

For as long as there have been modern humans, they have wandered, explored. Some for reasons of survival or economic or political necessity. But others, many others, explored for the sake of exploring. As Sir Edmund Hillary said, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, “Because it’s there.”

One thing I try to do, when exploring, is not to simply be a casual observer, but to learn something, something about myself, something about my own culture by virtue of being in another place. As I pack my things, explore my options and clean out my life, there are two lessons that I have been learning.

First of all, I come from an incredibly materialistic culture. We buy things, things we don’t need and often only vaguely want, just for the sake of doing it. As I go through all of my belongings, I realize how much stuff I have that I have purchased, usually recently, and don’t use or need or want anymore. It is sickening. I vow, as I’m stacking up stuff for Goodwill, to spend money on experiences in the future and not objects.

And then I get an email. A marketing email from Lokai, the company that makes those stylish “Live Lokai” bracelets. They have a new water bottle they’re selling. Water bottles are one of my areas of weakness. I don’t know why, but every one calls to me with a siren song. I think, “Well, if I buy it maybe I will drink more water. That will be good for me.” I almost hit buy. Then I remember: I have at least half a dozen perfectly good water bottles at home, why do I need another one? Why is it that we can’t resist buying things we don’t need?

The second lesson I have learned is to ask for help. I hate hate hate asking for help. I’m an American. Independent. Strong. Pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps. I would rather pay a stranger to do something than ask a friend to do it for me for free.

Guatemalans, I think, are better about this than Americans. They have a stronger sense of community often, and they ask when they need something. When I was there in July, the non-profit organization I went with toured a healthcare facility in El Estor along the Rio Dulce, an under-funded healthcare clinic with many pressing needs. The woman who ran the clinic didn’t hesitate, given this opportunity to speak to the organizational director, to spell out exactly what she needed for the clinic (even though we were simply there on a tour, not to evaluate a need for assistance). She asked for what she needed.

So I will try to overcome the guilt and discomfort I feel when asking for help, and just tell people what I need from them. So far it has worked well, I have a ride lined up to the airport (thank you, Charlotte!).

T-20 days until I am on the ground in Guatemala.

Questions and Answers

I like this kind of a blog post.  The kind where I get to ask myself easy questions that I know the answers to, and then answer them like some kind of an expect or something.

Q: You’re doing what?

A: You said these were going to be easy questions.

 

Q: Where is Guatemala?

A: It’s just south of Mexico, between Honduras, El Salvador and Belize.

 

Q: Why Guatemala?

A: Why not Guatemala? (In seriousness, the only people who have asked me this are the people who have never been to Guatemala. People who have been know exactly why.)

 

Q: Where are you going to live?

A: In Guatemala

A: No, actually, I’m going to live in Antigua. The city. Not to be confused with the Caribbean island, which is a different place. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s gorgeous and colonial and about 25 miles west of Guatemala City. I have a six-month lease on a one-bedroom apartment there. Or at least I think I do.

 

Q: How are you going to pay for stuff?

A: The cost of living is lower there than here, so my savings will last me 8-9 months. I will be looking for employment, likely online employment.

 

Q: Do you speak Spanish and/or have marketable skills that will help you survive in Guatemala?

A: No

 

Q: What about, like, visas and stuff?

A: I can stay on a tourist visa for three months, which can be extended fairly simply for another three months. Then I will have to do a border run, meaning leave Guatemala for three days minimum before returning to reset my tourist visa. I will not be able to legally work in country, however.

 

Q: Do you have family in Guatemala? (I actually get this one a lot).

A: No. I have a few friends in Guatemala City though.

 

Q: When do you leave?

A: Not soon enough.

A: The 28th of September.

 

Welcome

How are you supposed to start a blog? It feels like those days I was in grade school and started every letter with, “Hello, how are you? I am fine.”

So: Hello! How are you? I am fine.

Back story: (that’s how this is supposed to go, right?) I am nearly 28 (happy almost birthday to me) and a registered nurse from the Seattle area. I was married for almost three years and when my marriage recently ended, I thought, “Well now I can do some traveling!” (ex-hubby wasn’t a big traveling type).

Now most people in this position would make a budget, set aside some money every month, make hotel reservations, and book a round trip plane ticket for, I don’t know, sometime next year? Maybe these hypothetical responsible people would Google, “safe destinations for solo travelers.”

Instead, since logical and responsible are not my finest character points, I put in notice at my job, gave away most of my stuff on Craigslist, and bought a one way ticket for  Guatemala, a location fairly solidly not on the “safe destinations for solo female travelers” list.

Mom: If you are reading this, Guatemala is totally safe, I’m more likely to be in a car accident on the way to the airport than hurt in Guatemala, I’m never going to go out at night or alone or do anything even remotely dangerous and I will call and write everyday.

More back story: I’ve been to Guatemala three times in the past, most recently as part of a two week study abroad/healthcare volunteer trip in July. I’ve wanted to live there for about ten years, so now, depending on who you ask, I’m either “following my dreams” or “going to end up on 20/20.”

Either way, I hope you will follow along and find out.