Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chapter 4: Catching up

I suspect I will be writing a number of chapters by this same name. I tried to write a blog entry yesterday, after several days of inactivity, but inadvertently erased it all when I close down the program without saving the contents.

Anyway, here I am finally settled in with a cup of coffee at the foot of the grand staircase on the Promenade deck, finally dashing off an entry to summarize what we have been up to lately. Today is the last day of our week long cruise. I have had fun, but also am ready to go home. I have just about exhausted what is of interest to me on this ship and am ready to get back home to make ready for our next great adventure to Germany.

The highlights of this week's cruise have been the three onshore excursions that we took part in. Our first one was to Tulum, a Mayan archeological site on the scenic Mayan riviera near Cozumel. The site consists of an ancient city, dominated by a pyramid that overlooks an emerald blue bay. The pyramid was used as a combination growing calendar for Mayan farmers and a navigational marker for fishermen who approached the dangerous reefs of the bay. Following the light between the columns at the zenith of the structure guided the boats safely into harbor.

The site is fascinating and well preserved, and our guide was knowledgable and quite personable, but the crowds were distracting. Sometimes it was difficult to get a good look at anything. One certainly does not acquire a feeling of a sacred space in such congested environs.

Of course, such is the nature of guided tours, especially those organized by cruise lines that try to pack as many people together and rush them through as quickly as possible so that everyone can return to the ship on time to shuttle off to the next excursion. At least we were able to see the ruins.

Our next excursion was to the island of Roatan, which is part of Honduras. This is a fairly new cruise site, and is not so developed as the Cozumel area. In fact, from the ship before we disembarked, the island looked nearly uninhibited--a lush green tropical land mass surrounded by clear blue waters. Once one begins to travel around the island, it becomes clear that plenty of people live the, but their homes and streets are obscured from a distance by foliage. For this tour, we were joined by a mostly senior group, thus loading and unloading the bus often seemed and endless process. The bus itself was a small church vehicle with narrow passage between seats--not easily navigable to enormous American tourists trying to squeeze though their girths. Our youthful guides were expert and patient.

Roatan is best known for its legacy of pirates. Most of the great privateers and sea bandits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hid out there at various times and sometimes hid treasures or wrecked ships. There are twentieth century ship wrecks rusting in the main harbor still. They have been looted for parts by locals and the hulks are too expensive for the poor communities to have hauled off. Now they are tourist sites.

Our next stop was Belize, a mostly English speaking country on the tip of the Yucatan. Because I had read about so many American expatriates buying property there and retiring, I was expecting a more developed area. Belize appeared to me to be the poorest of the three countries we visited. The capital is a ramshackle collection of cinder block houses painted bright colors strung together with a truly frightening looking electrical system. Utility lines look like chaotic spaghetti with plenty of spare cables hanging loose. Our guide told us that the entire country has only six traffic lights, of which five still work. The cars are all used models from the US and Mexico and frequently have no license plates. Driving is a bit of a free for all, and the roads are narrow and often rutted. Our tour bus blew a tire within a few miles of our destination, and the driver drove on the rim until we arrived. From the bus, we boarded a boat and motored down the undeveloped Belize River for a few hours to a remote Mayan city, Lamanai, in the middle of a rainforest preserve.

This city was the highlight of all or our excursions. It is truly a remote site, accessible mainly by river. Other than the ancient ruins, there is only a small museum, which of course we did not have time to visit, and a small gift shop which we were also hurried past. We did, however, spend quite some time guided along the sites, and had the opportunity to scale two of the pyramids. From the summit of the largest, the Belize river was visible in the distance, meandering through the dense rainforest. The steps are quite steep and difficult to walk up normally. I found it easier to clamber up them with hands and feet, like a monkey. My own theory, not supported by any expertise, is that the Mayans may have scaled them in such a way, especially considering that people were smaller than today, with surely a much shorter gait. Today there is a rope line to help tourists scale, which certainly would not have been there originally.

Anyway, of all the excursions, Belize was my favorite. Each was interesting in its own way. Also, my own sense of myself as an American was complex. I constantly wondered how locals viewed us as we passed in our dark-windowed, air conditioned coaches. The question of whether our tourist dollars help locals economically is probably a complex one. Developers tend to build places for tourists, which are sequestered from the locals for customer safety and comfort, and so probably offer limited economic benefit to locals, and may also introduce criminal activity from outside. The tour companies are usually owned by multinationals rather than locals, but they do hire reasonably well educated locals to conduct the tours. Part of me felt like an ugly spoiled American, and yet I enjoyed meeting the guides and other locals involved in showing us a good time. It may not be the perfect way to encounter another culture and is a bit superficial, but given the time constraints of an economical tour, the limited encounter is better than never encountering one another at all.

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