My Kind of Town Has All That Jazz

We travel nearly 9000 miles and yet Chicago still finds a way to insinuate its way into our daily lives.  This time, though, is different – we actually look forward to going to our university complex.

Taking a few lessons from Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town,” it really is remarkable that we are able to study (and “study”) in such an amazing facility as the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.  This is the school’s second international scholastic node after Paris with a new center in Delhi set to open in several years.  Located on the 20th floor of the Zhongguancun Culture Plaza building directly adjacent to our dormitories at Renmin University, the UChicago Center in Beijing contains a host of amenities that make it extremely attractive to work in: large, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the entire building, a large student area with water and a professional coffee machine, couches galore (much softer than our beds at Renmin), and fast wireless internet that is already “over the Great Firewall of China.”  While still getting a few kinks out of the daily operation schedule, the University of Chicago in Beijing is an in an incredibly facility run by a highly capable (with great singing voices!) staff.  Especially the more-than-a-receptionist Coco; she rocks.

The University of Chicago Center in Beijing is an amazing site located on the 20th floor of the Culture Plaza building adjacent to Renmin University (where we live). Here, the front desk area with our amazing receptionist Coco.

A 3D map of the UChicago campus in Hyde Park greets visitors upon arrival

The Zen Garden - a nice study (and apparently nap) zone in the corner of the building

The view of Haidain District in NW Beijing from the UChicago Center

This curving wall has portraits and captions about all of the Universitys Nobel Prize Winners

Tables and couches constitute a large study area

The student lounge - with a coffee/espresso/cappuccino machine! Also, a dinosaur discovered by famed UChicago paleontologist Paul Sereno graces the edge of the room.


The library

Art exhibit

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Sharks, Quarks, and Parks

The red pulse beats calmly and rhythmically from the core.  Like a stone dropping into still water, waves emanate from the center.  You can feel that idea in Beijing.  The Chinese capital wields incredibly influence over world politics – in realist terms, Beijing is objectively the second-most important city on the planet after Washington.  It’s a humbling feeling to know you are truly in one of the great poles of global order.  In the Chinese mind, the world really does revolve around their modern capital.  Unlike the relatively new upstarts of Shanghai, Shenzen, and Hong Kong, Beijing seems confident of its role to rule over China ad infinitum.  The drum beats on in Beijing as it has for millennia.

The school has been taking us on some excursions throughout the city on Fridays.  While overall they have been decent, my one major complaint is that I wished the school would take us to more, well, unconventional and far-flung sites.  We can visit the tourist sites on our own; we are here for three months, so I wish the university would facilitate some harder-to-get-to trips that I wouldn’t necessarily do/be able to do on my own.  Oh well.

Anyway, the pictures from several trips!

The group in Tiananmen Square as we make our way to the Clock Museum in the Forbidden City

Guard in front of the gate that marks the entrance to the Forbidden City

Me in front of the gate to the Forbidden City, directly adjacent to Tiananmen Square

Entering the Forbidden City. We were heading to the far north-east side of the complex to visit the Clock Museum, so we had no time to explore the rest of the sites here. The city definitely deserves several hours!

The clocks in the Forbidden City Clock Museum were neat and really intricate, but sadly made me extremely tired

Trying to leave the massive maze of the Forbidden City...

Modern Chinese soliders march against the backdrop of ancient China as we wait for our bus to our next stop

Next stop: the National Center for Performing Arts. To the east of Tiananmen Square, this is one the largest and most advanced theater facilities in the world - certainly fitting for the Chinese capital.

Pretending to be Asian, I look really dumb...

The "egg" is surrounded completely by shallow water, so the entrance is a glass tunnel underneath the lake

Entering the foyer

Our tour guide, "Krystal" (her Chinese name is something completely different), gave us a very odd speech that sensationalized the construction of the theater. Everything inside, from the rare marble in the floor to the endangered Brazilian wood composing the ceiling, was said to be the best. Krystal: "This stone from faraway province is best in world. Many lives destroyed, but perfect building!" Not exactly what she said, but basically.

Dramatic shot

My boss! Sec. Clinton visited the National Center for Performing Arts just recently on her most recent trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

A exhibition showcasing the Chinese and international performances that have occurred at the center

As the cultural capital of China, many famous people have visited here

Entering Beihai Park. This giant white pagado, dating back several hundred years, sits on a small island in the middle of the large site. In the giant lake, you can (and we did) rent boats to paddle around the tranquil environ.

Silly Chinese people

In front of a lion (?) statue


Walking around the island in the middle of Beihai Park

A man gently writes Chinese characters on the ground with a large brush


Eating lunch at a lakeside restaurant in Beihai Park - noodles with beef past and several kinds of vegetables

Chrysanthemum tea

Ornate traditional doors cut across the park

A peaceful way to spend an afternoon lakeside

This was my first time to Beihai Park - now Ive been there three times because its so awesome to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon here.

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Aerial Cascade

The Temple of Heaven (天坛) is one of Beijing’s most visited sites.  It is a giant complex on which many prayer halls form the area where the Qing and Ming emperors would make their annual walk from the Forbidden City to make offerings for a bountiful coming year.  Built in 1406, the area’s many building and pathways are all designed to worship, as the name implies, heaven. Everything here has a purpose – the color, the number, and the shape were not arbitrary decisions, but instead are deep-seated reflections of ancient Chinese culture that still influences life today.

For example, the number nine is a royal number representing the emperor.  Marble slabs in multiples of nine can be found throughout the area.  Also, the shape of a square represents the Earth while heaven is a circle.  The main architectural sites are squares upon rounded mounds, and then the actual temples are again circles on top of squares.  The duality of heaven and Earth is underscored throughout the grounds in subtle, yet striking ways.

I usually like writing longer pieces here, but I think the pictures and their captions are actually better.  I apologize for the long delay in posting.  Expect new posts soon!

Starting the day off with a hearty breakfast

I took the subway to the Temple of Heaven and I wasn't really sure what side to enter from. Apparently, I came in through the "less awesome" side, the East Gate.

The park is huge

Chinese soldiers

Elderly people gamble for money in the Long Corridor, a series of 72 interconnected rooms which symbolized the 72 earthly fiends. Sacrificial animals had were kept here as they had to be at least 200 paces away from the altar, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. At midnight of day of the sacrifice, they are led out of their bays.

An old man uses water and a brush to create temporary messages on the floor.

The detail of the roof - it's hard to imagine that when this entire complex was used by the Ming and the Qing dynasties, no nails were uses for any of the construction!

People playing dominoes in the Long Corridor

Foot badminton

These people were literally screaming as they threw down cards

Another shot of the large open spaces. People practices tai chi in the distance.

The main attraction, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Getting closer...

Ah, here it is. Every year during the winter solstice, the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors visited this hall to offer their sacrifices to the heavens.

Odd little urn thing

The inside of the Hall where the emperor would, as the name suggests, pray for good harvests in the upcoming year.

Me in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Built in 1406, the Hall is over 12 stories high and sits upon 3 marble bases. Everything here has specific reason why it is included - its number, position, and color reflect the culture of ancient China.

Panorama shot. Click for larger image.

This door is called the 70 Year Old Door. During the annual commute from the Forbidden City to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, this door was set up for the ailing Qianlong Emperor to shorten his path. In order to guarantee his successors wouldn't be lazy and continue to take the door, he decreed that one could only use it once they became a septuagenarian. He was the only person to use it.

One of the many buildings that directly surround the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Taichi in the park

Lady praying to...

...the Nine Dragons Juniper. This tree, rolled into what kind of/sort of/doesn't look like nine dragons, is also almost 1000 years old.

Chinese people decorate their masks, unlike in other Asian countries.

Playing with traditional streamers


Many of these trees were several hundred years old with some nearing 800

Another building that looks like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. However, behind here is what is called the Echo Wall. People on opposite sides of the hall can hear each other if they both face the back wall, even if whispering. Perfect parabola!

The unattractive Circle Mound. Like the Echo Wall, the sound reflects perfectly when standing in the middle. Lavishly built with nine stone dragons, surrounded by multiples of nine stones, and and three marble stone levels, this was an important altar when it was built in 1530.

Asian tourist yelling in the middle of the Circle Mound

Man playing Chinese flute

Nearest subway station to the Temple of Heaven

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Somewhere Between Winnipeg and Siberia

Finally.  Half of a year of waiting is over.  Visa from the consulate – check.  Dog-eared Lonely Planet – check.  Chopstick finesse – uhh, to be acquired later.  I was finally going to China.

Since I had to change my Tokyo itinerary, I rebooked myself on American Airlines’ once-daily flight to Beijing via Chicago-O’Hare (ORD).  I originally was upset at the flight, since it left Chicago at 9:00 PM Monday and arrived 11:30 PM Tuesday, so by the time you clear immigration, customs, and get your bag, it will be Wednesday.  However, I realize that while essentially arriving 2 days later after taking off, AA 187 allows you to sleep on your nighttime circadian rhythm rather than during the day.  Coupled with the low loads throughout the flight, who interestingly seemed to be made up of mostly non-Chinese tourists and businesspeople, I fell asleep somewhere around Winnipeg, woke up in time to cross the International Date Line, and fell asleep again until we were solidly over Siberia in the Russian Far East.  After 13 hours and 7 minutes of flying time, we landed in the political, cultural, and psychological capital of the People’s Republic of China – Beijing.

Anyway, here are the first pictures as I struggle to cope with the 13 hour time difference with Chicago!

My Chinese visa with the personal data blocked out

I took AA 2088 from Tampa (TPA) to Chicago O'Hare (ORD), connecting on AA 187 to Beijing Capital International (PEK), the busiest airport in China. Some information on my boarding pass I erased for internet privacy.

Heading NW from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) across Canada and eventually...

...heading east over the top of Alaska. It's always cool to see the local time clock instantly add 24 hours when the plane crosses the International Date Line between Russia and Alaska.

Chinese immigration card

Arriving in the PRC; stepping off the jetbridge at 11:15 PM Tuesday evening

An Air China 757 parked in the gate next door, probably headed to SE Asia, Korea, or Japan on Wednesday morning given the range of the aircraft

Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital (PEK), the busiest airport in China, is overwhelmingly huge. Finished prior to the 2008 Olympics, T3 is the 3rd largest building in the world by area.

Blurry, but another shot of T3 at PEK

A bizarre little machine at Chinese immigration where I could rate the officer and my experience as she perused my visa details. The whole process took maybe 20 seconds, with no questions asked. The agent merely looked at my visa, typed something really quick, and said "thank you" in Chinese. I blocked out her ID number so I don't get in trouble with the PRC government. My passport was stamped so fast I didn't click the happy face in time!

I love signs, but I really like the white sort-of-star shape. Signs conveying important information in the US lacks that "boom boom" found in Chinese signs.

Luggage belt 41 for AA 187 from Chicago

Silly ad at PEK, waiting for my bag

Upon landing, my phone connected to China Unicom cell service and located me. Dumb, but also kinda cool.

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A few days after posting saying I was still going to Tokyo despite the earthquake, I quickly realized that a trip to Japan right now would not really be appropriate or worthwhile.  With rolling blackouts throughout Japan and the looming nuclear threat at the Fukushima plant, there are much better times to visit the land of the rising sun.  Maybe next spring, maybe this summer.  We’ll see.

I depart for Beijing tomorrow on my adjusted American Airlines ticket.  Once I come back from China in June, I’ll have enough AA miles for nearly 3 complete roundtrips to Europe, 2 roundtrips to anywhere else in the world, or a roundtrip business class ticket to Europe and Latin America!  Anyway, I bought a VPN for my use in the PRC, which essentially acts as an encrypted tunnel that sends my data to and from servers in Hong Kong and Korea.  Despite the Great Firewall of China, World continues!

See you in Beijing.

Instead of spending a week in Japan, I'm now flying right to Beijing via Chicago-O'Hare on American's (horribly inconvenient) flight 187, leaving at 9:00 PM Mon and arriving 11:30 PM Tues.

My Chinese visa with the personal data blocked out

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The Sun Also Rises

Officially confirmed – making a pitstop in Japan for a week before continuing on to Beijing and mainland PRC for 3 months.

Goals for Tokyo:

  • get lost on subway
  • take pictures of shiny lights
  • eat sushi on one of those carousel things
  • get sick of sushi and vow never to eat it again
  • view Mt. Fuji from Lake Yamanaka
  • sleep on a yatami mat on the floor
  • sleep in an 8′ x 2′ x 2′ room
  • shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto
  • Tsujukiji Fish Market fo’ sho’
  • Imperial Palace and Asakusa and Ueno (pagodas and stuff)
  • take more pictures of Japanese signs that probably mean something incredibly mundane like “street cleaning”
  • karaoke with presumed new friends while making sure they pick up the Ichiban bill
  • bow continuously
  • pretend to love J-pop but secretly idolize K-pop
  • sake in little ceramic vials
  • eat more sushi

Also, a side note that I’m sure very few people care about.  I’m flying into Tokyo-Narita, Japan’s main international gateway, via Dallas/Ft. Worth, which is so far from central Tokyo.  However, I was able to get on to Japan Airlines 23 leaving from Tokyo-Haneda, the busiest, mostly-domestic airport in Japan, when I leave the country for the People’s Republic.

Anyway, sorry for all the minutia.  World is on break for about 2 months until East Asia.  See you then.

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Refugees Run the Seas Because We Own Our Own Boats

*This is part 1 of 2 of Cartagena.  See part 2 below.*

Destination Colombia.  FARC rebels conduct secret raids across the Venezuelan border while drug peddlers deal cocaine on the streets?  Isn’t is just SO dangerous?  While a lot of that stuff still exists to a degree, Colombia is nothing like it was a few decades ago.  After years of conflict, Colombia is now safe to visit and back open for business for the adventurous traveler.  In days past there was a saying in Colombia that “if only it weren’t for the violence and the drugs, Colombia would be paradise.”  While the drugs are still here, the violence has mostly subsided – Colombia is easy to fall in love with and is that tropical paradise for many, myself included.

My dad and I, wanting to escape the 50˚ weather in Florida, flew to the famed Colombian port city of Cartagena.  Cartagena is the best preserved colonial city in either of the Americas – cliché, but the city enchants your senses.  Located on the southern Caribbean Sea and less than 10 degrees north of the equator, the city has a laid back tropical feel with heat and humidity to match (only Singapore was hotter!).  We stayed in Cartagena’s impressive old city, a centuries-old fort meant to protect the Spanish investments and trade routes from other European hegemons.  Now it is home to prolific winter escapees like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira up the coast in Barranquilla.

The old city itself is very much like Antigua, Guatemala in that it’s full of vibrant colors (à la Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire) and lots of little plazas and squares.  Unusual statues and great little food places dot ancestral street corners.  There is a always a parade or festival or concert making its way through the cobbled streets, the same streets that Spanish colonists, traders, and soldiers marched.  The impressive city walls are now a sight in of themselves, offering views of the murky Caribbean.  It is crazy to think that once, people were frightened to look beyond these walls, afraid of what incoming armada may lie in the distance.  Now, hundreds of years later, people fly thousands of miles to stand upon the same coral stone walls, gazing out into the cerulean horizon.

Later, we ventured to the Volcán del Totumo.  This volcano wasn’t like Pacaya, an active volcano in Guatemala, I climbed a few months ago.  In reality, it’s not even a volcano.  Totumo looks like a giant termite mound and instead of molten lava, is full of a warm, cream-like mud that bubbles up from the interior frequently.  Legend has it that the mound was once a real fire-spewing volcano.  A local priest, seeking to destroy what he believed was the work of the devil, sprinkled holy water into the caldera until the flamed subsided and mud filled its place.  Now, the Volcán del Totumo is a popular attraction for Colombian tourists and foreigners alike.  Located about an hour from Cartagena, the mud volcano is located between the this city and Barranquilla, pop singer Shakira’s hometown.  It was, um, well, an unusual experience.  Much like the Dead Sea in Israel, getting yourself upright from lying on your chest or back was difficult.  For a small tip (you can’t forgo it, it is just something that is part of the experience) people rub your head and legs with the mud.  Afterward, you make your way down to a freshwater lake where local village women wash you.  And yes, you part with your bathing suit here.

A great, extremely unique experience.  More to come…

American and it's partners take too long to get from South Florida to Cartagena, so we flew Spirit from Fort Lauderdale. Below, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) on the west coast of the state.

Meet me in Miami

Blurry picture taken from my phone, but our departure board in Ft. Lauderdale International

After clearing the extensive Colombian customs, we got in a cab and went to our hotel. I captured this shot of the restricted beach along the way. The beaches directly adjacent to Cartagena are kinda of subpar. The sand is dark brown, as is the water. You have to go about 20km north or south of the city to get the crystal clear cerulean waters of the Caribbean.

The first glimpse of Cartagena's fabled old city

Bright colors abounded in every crevice and wall in the old city

Shalom, giant door

A sign in an Argentinian steak house was familiar - we've been to this famed restaraunt the poster is advertising in Buenos Aires, the illustrious capital of Argentina!

Our first night, in the Plaza de Simon Bolivar, we witnessed bachata dancing. Cartagena has a very strong African presence. It was one of the principal slave ports for the Spanish New World colonies and was subsequently one of the first slave cities to be liberated. Los afriamericanos make up almost half of Cartagena's population.

More dancing. Interestingly, when the hat is passed around after the dance for donations, I noticed that all the Colombians put in money. Though it's only coins (roughly 2000 Colombian pesos = $1 USD), it is sort of striking that virtually no one passed on donating, something that would not happen in the States.

A hearty Colombian breakfast, complete with unusual fruit juice and fried plantains.

One of many small plazas throughout the old city

Me + giant cathedral door. A lot of large doors here for such small people...

Monks? Friars? Uh...who?

Making our way to the las murallas, the great walls encircling the old city

People once were afraid of what lied on the horizon past these walls. Now, we traveled thousands of miles to look upon the same waters that Spanish colonists looked at, though this time out of wonder and grandeur rather than fear.

Eh, too close

Canons face the southern Caribbean as skyscrapers line the Bocagrande beach in the distance

Another of canons atop the old city walls

On the walls facing the city

Cool street art

Busy cathedral entrance

Simón Bolívar, the liberator of many South American countries from the Spanish Empire. He is trated as a hero in Colombia and elsewhere. His translated quote reads, "People of Cartagena, if Caracas gave me life, you give me glory!"

At the Plaza de Simón Bolívar

A great place for lunch and a drink, La Perla (the Pearl). I had seafood lasagna and my dad hade marlin. Total cost, including smoothies = $12

The inside of our hotel

Later that night, there was some crazy dance contest following a road race. Odd Cartageneros...

That night, we started with some great ceviche

The next day, we boarded a bus for the Volcán del Totumo. Legend has that centuries ago a priest sprinkled holy water into the mound, turning the lava into mud and drowning out the tenant, el diablo. Now, it is a popular place for visitors to swim in.

Going up the side of the mud volcano

People swimming in the mud, which was fairly warm, bubbled up every now and then, had the consistency of cream, and was super buoyant, much like the Dead Sea in Israel

The mud volcano is located about an hour from Cartagena, half way between the city and Shakira's home city, Barranquilla

My dad and I; I looked pained

Dad and I covered in the 'healing' mud

Going down to the river. There, local village women washed you. It was a weird feeling for some old Colombiana to put her fingers in my ears.

A nearby café by the mud volcano

After 'swimming' in the Volcán del Totumo, we took a bus to the tiny seaside town of Manzanilla and had quite the lunch. As we ate, various peddlers from the town came to us and tried to sell us oysters and some crazy sweets.

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The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

*This is part 2 of 2 of Cartagena.  See part 1 above.*

Our Lonely Planet calls Cartagena’s central market, the Mercado Bazurto, “not for the faint of heart.”  Reading this, we knew we had to go.  Catching a cab, we ventured out into ‘real’ Cartagena.  Outside of the relatively clean and authentically preserved old city, the authentic part of the city spillovers into a wild mess of poorly paved roads and petrol fumes.  Animals fight for space in the road as people dart past pot holes of rotting sewage and into one of them many food carts selling oysters and beef empanadas.  I have been to plenty of markets around the world, including quite a few in Central and South America, but never have I been to one as powerful as Bazurto.

Westerners never go to Bazurto.  People stared at us in incredulity, as if wondering why we would leave the colonial comforts of the old city for a dirty and definitely-not-up-to-health-code urban mess miles away from the Caribbean coast.  But that is exactly why we went, to see real Cartagena and experience the genuine Colombia.  After all, we didn’t come thousands of miles to South America to sit in an air conditioned hotel room overlooking the sea; “you can sleep when you’re dead” is a good travel mantra.  Anyway, as the picture will illuminate, Bazurto was an intense experience.  The market is a maze of narrow dirt alleys and dilapidated wooden stalls.  Everything seems to be sold here – in one corner, a butcher chops beef, blood running down the side of the counter, in another, an old woman peddles sliced fish basking in the brutal humidity.  On the ground, makeshift bridges from vegetable crates cover cesspools of liquified trash.  I can’t even imagine at night when presumably the rats come out to play…or even worse, when it rains…

Later in the trip, we climbed the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and strongest fort built by the Spanish in any of their New World colonies.  Completed several years before our country celebrated its declaration, the fort was never conquered.  It stands proudly over one of the city’s higher hills, commanding a view of the Caribbean.

In the distance, skyscrapers along the Bocagrande district of the city arch along a sandy peninsula, offering warm winter refuge for Colombian tourists.  Later we would walk the 4 or so miles from the tip of Bocagrande back to the old city.  Hundred of people come up to you asking if you want a massage or sunglasses or need help applying your sunscreen.  I really felt my Spanish, which gets us by surprisingly well in Latin America (6 years of class instruction later…), improved after dealing with hordes of peddlers all selling one of only a handful of products or services.  No gracias. Yo no quiero un masaje y yo no quiero que me toques. Ciao. (No thank you.  I don’t want a massage and I don’t want you to touch me.  Bye.)

Colombia.  What a fascinating place.  People are blindly unaware of the realities that make up modern, cosmopolitan Colombia today, repeating decades-old soundbites of drug cartels and violence.  Look closer and you will find an amazing destination well off the Latin American tourist circuit (we counted – we saw 4 Americans but a good handful of Aussies and Europeans) that rewards those with a little patience (the violence has kept tourists, and therefore English, from percolating heavily throughout the populace) and the intrigue to press further into a dynamic and unique international destination.

I’m already looking forward to going back to Bogotá, the ancient capital 8500 feet in the Andes, and especially Medellín, the country’s cultural second city.  Colombia, I’ll see you soon.

Back in Cartagena after swimming in the mud volcano, I take a solo trip around the old city. Here, just a street sign near our hotel.

The Plaza de Simón Bolívar is a favorite hangout of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez

These type of statues - large, nude women - are all over Cartagena

Plaza del Santo Domingo, another old city square

Giant Colombian flag (with some words attached to the bottom)

Walking up the city walls again...

...and finding no one up there. Much like Spain, people take siestas here to escape the intense heat. Here, an old colonial tower shares the skyline with the new pillars of glass and steel of modern Cartagena

The spot where a cannon would be frames the southern Caribbean Sea

An odd globe statue with the skyscrapers of the Bocagrande district in the distance

A platform in the sea to the right of the globe statue

Back in the old city, the old clocktower. It was destroyed and rebuilt 3 times as attackers sieged the city.


An old gate, seperating the El Centro district from the poorer Getsemani area

Horses carry people on the cobbled streets

Old theater

Another view of the gate

The gate from the Avenue of the Heroes, a site dedicated to those that helped solidify Cartagena's history

The next day, we took a cab outside of the old city into Cartagena proper. Several miles in, we arrived at the Mercado Bazurto, something my Lonely Planet says is "not for the faint of heart." Wow, were they right.

Roughly $2000 Colombian pesos = $1 USD

Lots of fish sitting in the incredible heat and humidity

So much fish. That fried fish we ate in Manzanilla was probably from here.

Is this hygenic?

This is sort of horrifying. Blood from the butcher shops leaks over the counters.

Walking through Bazurto

Chile vendor

We were quite the spectacle. Not very often do Westerners leave the nice old city and come quite a bit out to 'real' Cartagena.

The market, Bazurto, had so much liquified trash just laying around. Surely rats must come out at night. Hello, cholera. I wonder what happens when it rains...

Looks like she is making corndogs

"Prohibited to throw trash." That worked out well.

After Bazurto, we took a cab to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and strongest fort the Spanish built in any of their New World colonies

Climbing up

Giant Colombian flag on the fort

The pose...with a windy shot of the giant flag

View from the top

Next to some metal thing

Under the fort there was an extensive tunnel system

Cannons at the top now face the Bocagrande district skyscrapers

Another view from the top with the big Colombian flag

From the fort, we took a cab to the very end of the Bocagrande peninsula, the location of all skyscrapers. The beaches directly in Cartagena really aren't that great - the sand is dark, the water is murky, and there is heavy erosion problems, so rocky jetties punctuate the shore every 200 feet. For crystal clear waters, you have to venture a few miles north or south of the city.

The back of the lifeguard station

Me in front

Beach. So many people came up to us asking us, in Spanish, if we needed chairs or a massage or sunglasses or someone to rub sunscreen on us

I love signs

Looking back; another beach shot

Tree on beach?

On the beach umbrella things, a message drugstore advertisement

Drinking the Colombian national beer, Águila, which means "eagle," on the beach

A seafood rice lunch

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Dance to the Conga Beat

For now, World rests.  I am going to Cartagena, Colombia in exactly a month from today, so until then, we take a short break.  The average temperature on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is 86˚ F in December, so it will be be a nice break from icy Chicago.

Looking further ahead, Panama harkens for a quick trip in January.  Stay tuned.

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Beyond the Mexique Bay

*This is part 2 of 2 of Guatemala.  Part 1 is in a different post below.*

The following day, we took a domestic TACA (the national carrier of several Central American countries) flight to Flores, a northern town, to visit Tikal.  Tikal is arguably the best extant Mayan city left preserved in the world.  What Chichen Itza has in sheer size, Tikal has in enormity in both the structures and the site itself.

Spread over 50 square kilometers, Tikal is a testament to the grandeur that was the Mayan civilization.  The prosaically named Temple I and Temple II rest 20 stories above La Gran Plaza, ominously exposing reliefs of warriors and jaguars.  Tikal literally contains dozens of massive temples and thousands of other objects.  How else do you describe something as amazing as Tikal?  “Breathtaking” just seems a little too dull.  Being in the heart of the rain forest lowlands (we were only a few miles from the Belize border), we had to take anti-malarial medication, as the disease lives among the jungle mosquitos.

After climbing (and getting bit by those crazy jungle ants you see on the Discovery Channel) through Tikal for hours, we spent the remaining time before our evening flight back to Guatemala City in the city of Flores.  Flores, located on an idyllic, though incredibly small island (its roughly a half kilometer squared), is much like Antigua, though it has a much stronger Caribbean vibe, probably due to its extreme proximity to Belize and the northwest part of the aforementioned cerulean sea).  We ate some tacos with black beans, chicken, and guacamole while watching the sun set over this little slice of paradise.  Third world, yes, but Eden by another name.

The final day, we spent in Antigua, our home base in the country.  More lazy exploring of ancient ruins in an ancient city, more haphazardly discovering amazing little places to eat, and drinking world class Guatemalan coffee – not a bad way to spend a warm autumn day in Central America.

I never knew I could or would have such a rewarding experience in Guatemala.  For a country that has been so afflicted by violence in the past is just now beginning to appear on the American off-road travel scene, though it is still plenty removed from the “normal” sites in Mexico and dare I say, Costa Rica.  Too many Westerners there, especially the latter.

On the agenda for December: Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, here we come.

We took an early morning flight from Guatemala City to Flores to visit Tikal and took an evening flight back. We flew TACA, the supranational flag carrier of Central America for the 200 mile flight.

Arriving at Tikal, an ancient Mayan city that rivals and arguable outshine Chichen Itza as the best of its kind. Truly a world wonder.

Me by a map

This was the easy part of the jungle path - stairs! What a luxury in the rain forest!

An ancient house, covered in verdant moss of a thousands shades of jade

The backside of the prosaically named Temple I, rising 68 meters into the sky

Trying to reach the front side of Temple I and the Grand Plaza. Jumped (and later slide) through this ruins

Ah, at last. The Grand Plaza of the one of the greatest cities ever to be built.

Ruins directly adjacent to the Grand Plaza. The straw was obviously added by the park caretakers.

Shalom, Temple II on the north end of the Grand Plaza. Later, we would climb the hastily built stairs on the side for striking views of the cleared land in the Guatemalan rain forest.

Said stairs to the summit of Temple II. It was more like climbing a very steep ladder turned on its side.

The majesty, the grace - Temple I from atop Temple II. The two mighty monoliths stare at each other across the Grand Plaza.

The Plaza (not in Beverly Hills)

Dad looking introspective

Me in front of Temple I

Slightly farther out with the rest of the Grand Plaza in sight. From atop Temple II. Also, AUC (American University in Cairo) should be sending me a check for all the basically international free endorsements I'm giving them.

Continuing to explore the 50 square kilometer complex that was and is Tikal

Etched face on the side of a stone wall

We saw several coastis, animals related to raccoons that look like anteaters, lazily wandering throughout the ancient city

Me with a ritual carving used by Mayan spiritualists

Crazy vines

Nearing the massive Temple V, the largest in the compound

Looking up the front of Temple V

Me in front of only a partial view of the front stairs. Really, Temple V is huge!

From the top, one is able to peer into Belize in the distance

More ancient ruins, more climbing, and more slipping and falling on the slick moss


There are literally thousands of structures to explore in Tikal. This reminds of that old show Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Hola, grey fox

After a quick jungle rain shower, we were back in action. Making our way out of Tikal after a long day exploring. Me in front of the mighty Temple I again.

Nearing the exit

Dad in a hidden temple

After Tikal, we still had a few hours before our evening flight back to Guatemala City and Antigua. We went to the city of Flores, a colorful little capital (of the northern Guatemalan state of Petén) located on a VERY small island.

A mooring for a shallow boat in the lago

Tuk-tuks are all over Guatemala... are sketchy scooters that are way overloaded with people!

Rounding the northern side of the island. Boots here were willing to take you to the other side of the lake, "the mainland"

She made us an early dinner snack for 50 cents. I think she also said something about recycling - an area where my conversational Spanish is lacking!

Saturday evening is a time in Flores when families come out, set up their little food stalls and mingle, as children fly kites and play among the gentle waves

Sno-cones are all over Guatemala. I think the last time I ate a sno-cone was maybe 15 years ago.

Kids jumping off the pier into the silky waters of the lake

More locals out and about

More like adiós - it was time to head back to the airport. What a long day!

I just really liked the color of the house

Flores is a very colorful island with strong influences from the Caribbean (the sea is only short hop away through Belize)

Another (blurry) Flores street scene

What a long day Saturday was! Waking up super early for a morning flight to Tikal, hours of ruin-climbing and city-exploring (Flores), we made it back very late to Antigua. Our final full day, Sunday, we devoted to Antigua - slowly meandering through the cobblestone streets, finding hidden little food gems along the way, and lots of world class Guatemalan coffee!

Me in front of yet another one of Antigua's many ruined churches.

Even exceptionally poor people (and Guatemala is a very poor third world country) have beautiful tile lining the outside of their homes

The main mode of intercity transport by the native Guatemalans are the chicken buses. Always souped-up school buses with flames or other over-the-top decals on the side, they have been a source of murder in the country (they are often packed to the brim). The government has tried to develop alternative public transportation options, but the chicken buses remain the king.

Motorcycle license

The Spanish Embassy is in Antigua, not the capital, Guatemala City

Sunday is a busy day for local life in Antigua

Got some great orange juice from this man

Antigua's famous arch from a distance

Traditional Mayan street peddlers playing music for the hope of hope quetzales (~8 quetzales = 1 USD)

El Arco, again

No idea, but it smelled great

Some sort of bread to be stuffed with chicken, black beans, cheese, and vegetables

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