Happy New Year!
Yes, I know it’s mid-January, but this is the column I wanted to write as soon as I returned from vacation last week, but I felt obliged to shelve it and add to the commentary on that little Consumer Electronics Show (CES). You’ll find more on CES in the news section below.
When visiting Guatemala and Belize for two-and-a-half weeks over the holidays, I worked little, read much, swam within a few hairs’ lengths of nurse sharks, and ate the best tacos I may ever eat (gracias, Fridas). Below are some recollections that stem largely from the Belize leg of the trip, even if I loved Guatemala just as much (did I mention the tacos?).
Perspectives Set in Stone
In the middle of the western Belizean forests, you may wander into Mike’s Place, a well-rated activity-booking center, restaurant, and lodge hosted by Mike. You can’t miss Mike. His face is plastered on signposts miles around beside roads leading to the eponymous Place, with him looking like Tom Selleck cast as Indiana Jones – a comparison that is all the more ironic given that George Lucas wanted to cast Selleck as Mr. Jones, but Mr. Selleck couldn’t get out of his Magnum P.I. contract.
One last digression: my guide had many colorful things to say about Mike that I cannot print here as my budget does not allow for covering libel suits. I can only say that one of very few regrets from this trip is that I did not get to have a Belikin beer with Mike, as I get the sense that one night of drinks with him could give me two years of newsletter copy. The photo below is honest-to-God, honest-to-Mike the same exact image as you will find all over Barton Creek.
We stopped at Mike’s to rent canoes that we’d travel in to explore the Barton Creek Cave. The cave served as a kind of Mayan cathedral, and it’s easy to see why; if I became a nature worshipper, caves would be a key deity or sacred spot. They are both timeless and ever-changing, and they allow you to see what you want in them. Seeing some formation from one side can be entirely different from how it looks on another. It’s like seeing familiar objects in the clouds, but these are etched in stone.
It reminded me of visiting Sedona, Arizona last April and hearing about the different names for rock formations. Classical names, such as those derived from ancient Egypt, gave way to pop culture names such as ‘Snoopy’ or ‘the Lion King rock.’ The ‘Batman rock’ may be a pyramid if you see it from above and then nothing at all when you look at it sideways. Names for the rock evolve based on the angle and based on the era. Differences in perception play a role, but so does creativity. Somewhere, there’s a kid now telling his guide that some rock looks like Olaf from Frozen, and that guide will tell others, and then that rock will be known as’Olaf’ – just from one side – for the next fifty years, when visitors will assume someone named Olaf discovered it.
My only note for this part was, “Add section on FOMO,” and I was pretty sure I would have no clue what I was getting at when I tried writing this two weeks later, but it came to me.
At the Black Rock Lodge in San Ignacio, Belize, dinners are served individually but hosted communally. At 7pm, as everyone returns from their tours and hikes (or wakes up from their naps), the staff serves a multi-course dinner in the lodge’s one restaurant and meeting space. Most parties share tables with others, all pre-assigned. Typically, guests stay at the lodge a few days and book some assortment of activities, as there are dozens of options. With the communal dinners, a hot topic is comparing notes on outings. Did you explore a cave? Go for a hike? What about horseback riding? Checking out ruins?
Few guests have any complaints or choose to air them. It is a brilliant way to induce that fear of missing out, thanks to too many options and too little time. That invariably must contribute to their strong rebooking rate. Having spotty, minimal internet access further helps, as it forces more face-to-face conversations.
Also, I do have a separate list of travel recommendations spanning what to do, where to stay, and what to eat in Guatemala and Belize. I haven’t published those (though I have reviewed everything that I could on Google Maps); I’m happy to email that list to you if you’re interested.
The Best Tech
iNaturalist is one of those rare experiences that feels like magic. Take a photo of flora or fauna, and it will tell you, often with eerie precision, what is in front of you. I used it to identify whelks, black spiny-tailed iguanas, and magnificent frigatebirds. In case you’re not sure which suggested species name is most relevant, it will show you which species has been spotted closest to where you are. I love this app and need to remember to use it all the time, whether abroad or in the local park. It also happens to sport a community of more than one million members.
The Best Books
Jungle of Stone
by William Carlsen
How are John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood not household names today? This is the story of the one the most remarkable and unlikely pairs of explorers who made the world see the Maya in an entirely new way. As a bonus, practically anywhere you travel where there are Mayan ruins will be referenced here, and it’s likely that they were the first Westerners to appreciate how advanced those societies were. Just the fact that the red, squiggly line under “Catherwood” in Microsoft Word denotes a spelling error indicates there is a biographical injustice that must be rectified.
I, Rigoberta Menchu
by Rigoberta Menchu, with Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (editor) and Ann Wright (translator)
I can be honest here, right? This is the least fun of the books on the list. It’s the most academic. But it is powerful in its sparse, unflinching autobiographical account of Guatemala’s Nobel Peace Prize winner (1992). The book initially describes the “Indian” (her word choice) way of life in Guatemala and the injustices her people faced, and then it goes into her civil rights quest.
The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw
by Bruce Barcott
This is a must-read about Belize featuring American ex-pat Sharon Matola who founded the Belize Zoo as an animal rehab center for local wildlife and then later accidentally become an international conservation activist fighting governmental development that would threaten the beloved macaws’ nesting grounds. It’s also a useful guide to understanding Belize without claiming to be such a guide. For instance, the way the book frames Belize branding itself as a Caribbean country rather than Central American explains so much about why the country feels so different from its neighbors.
The Lost City of the Monkey God
by Douglas Preston
Have you ever unintentionally read two consecutive books by the same author? I downloaded this book because it’s about searching for a fabled, possibly Mayan city in Honduras – close enough to where I was traveling. Meanwhile, I’ve been on this recent paleontology book kick and downloaded his Dinosaurs in the Attic about the American Museum of Natural History. I loved them both, with the former perfect for travel and adventure buffs and the latter best for NYC and science buffs; I have a feeling most curious readers here would thoroughly enjoy either.
The Best Tacos
Fridas in Antigua, Guatemala.
Yes, I’m still craving them.
If you’ve been and have any tips on how to make them, I will be forever in your debt. Also, grilled scallions should be a standard taco topping here.
The Best Closing
I want to make Fridas-style tacos and grab Belikins with Mike. Please help. What can I help you with, and what are you making of yourself?
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