First I'll admit this update is late. I arrived in Costa Rica in August 2002 and left Mexico in December 2003 and I've taken two years to get the update done. Putting together a webpage is not difficult but it is time consuming, and I had a few other things going on. Sorry for the delay. However when you go through this website I think you'll agree that the extra time didn't pay off. It's nothing special.
I also have to admit I'm slowing down. I
covered eighteen countries in eight or nine months in 2000, now
I'm taking sixteen months to cover seven countries. Signs of age
perhaps. I've already had to reluctantly concede the eyes that
were much better than 20-20 for my first 40-something years now
need help, and I've also caught myself listening to "smooth
jazz" and "light rock" radio stations. But by slowing
down I acquired a somewhat functional knowledge of Spanish, collected
some interesting stories, and lived the irresponsible dream of
parking my lazy butt on an Caribbean island for months. When you
accept aging gracefully and decadently it's not that bad.
Anyway, Central America was an experience. I learned enough Spanish to be able to have a conversation with someone who was patient with me. Unfortunately I've already forgotten a lot. Hopefully I'll be able to relearn faster than learning the first time. I've decided that if I ever become a parent the child or children are going to learn languages early. I learned Spanish slower than kids in their twenties, but much faster than monoglots in their sixties.
Costa Rica: Incredible ecological diversity, beautiful jungle, mountains and beaches, San Jose and the larger towns are unsafe and uninteresting.
Panama: I only saw Bocas de Toro while on a weekend visa run. Nice, inexpensive place for a beach holiday.
Nicaragua: Beautiful Spanish colonial cities and architecture, impressive volcanoes, including two forming the island of Omotepe, great craft shopping but ridiculously expensive to ship things to the U.S., the population includes a small number of very wealthy people and a large number of appallingly poor people.
Honduras: Guide book and newspapers and people I talked to indicated a country with an out of control crime problem. Most of my time in Honduras was spent wasting the summer on the island of Roatan in the Caribbean. What better way to waste a summer?
Guatemala: The best of Central America. Spanish colonial cities and architecture, impressive volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins and really cool Mayan villages. Due to the United States' support of a government that murdered thousands in the 1980's many of the Mayan's refer to the United States as "Estados Maldidos". They didn't do anything else, they just let me know that they didn't like what my country had done.
Southern Mexico: More Spanish colonial cities, Mayan ruins, interesting crafts and markets (a great place for Christmas shopping), and many other things I didn't get around to. Mexico is a big country with a lot to offer; I didn't spend nearly enough time there. Also much safer than any of the other countries I visited.
Overall, go to Costa Rica for the beaches, the jungle and rain/cloud forest tours, and especially the sky trek. Avoid the cities in Costa Rica. Go to Guatemala for the Mayan culture, laid back places to hang out, and colonial cities. Go to MonoLoco if you're hanging out in Roatan for the summer. And allow lots of time for Mexico because I barely scratched the surface, but what I saw I liked. Except the part where my camera was stolen, that ticked me off.
Language: One huge advantage of Central America, and most of the Western hemisphere, is that most of the people speak Spanish. Sometimes a difficult to understand local version of Spanish, but it is more or less one language. If you learn enough of the language to get by, you are ready for every country in this hemisphere except Brazil, Canada, the United States and a few small Caribbean countries--Suriname, French Guiana, Haiti, and maybe one or two others. I can now speak reasonably competent tourist Spanish, and at my best I could sort of have a conversation in Spanish with someone who spoke slowly and clearly and used simple sentences with no slang. In other words I never learned conversational Spanish and never came close to fluency. Learning a language is a big task.
Tips on viewing this website:
I tried to arrange it so a viewer can jump to places of interest quickly. Countries are listed in the sidebar in the order I visited them. If you have the time and patience (I know, that's asking a lot) to view all of it, I suggest starting in Costa Rica and following the chronological sequence. That way you can see me with a clean shaven head in Roatan, then get progressively fuzzier in later pictures.
One change from past web pages is that I've used much larger "thumbnail" links to the full size pictures. I used small thumbnails in earlier pages so pages would load quicker over a slow internet connection. So many people have fast internet now I decided to insert pictures big enough to be viewed from the narrative page. They are still smaller than full size and linked to the full size pictures. I did try to break the narrative into enough pages so individual pages will not require a ridiculous amount of time to download over phone line connections. I hope this works for everyone.
On the subject of the pictures, I'm clearly not a professional photographer. The lighting in some of these pictures is terrible, especially when I tried to photograph and animal up in the trees. There was just no getting around the fact that when the subject is in the shade and the background is a bright sky, there will be lighting problems. Also, some of the pictures will have diagonal stripes separating parts with different lighting. These are composite pictures I Photoshopped together. If I were really good I could probably have corrected for the lighting differences, but I'm not that good.
Whenever I report on news events from the places I visited, I give references from on-line newspapers so you can check up on me. Some of these stories seem unlikely, but if you check the references or google up appropriate key words you'll see they are true. I'm always honest when I know that a lie will be found out.
Last, and possibly least, I've include a bulletin board for people who want to give me a hard time. Please keep it clean, there may be respectable people viewing this site.
Now for the amateurish pictures and lame narrative. This trip begins in Costa Rica. If you find any problems with the pages or just want to give me a hard time, an e-mail link is provided.
This was supposed to be my trip to Costa Rica. That's where I planned for, packed for, and told everyone I was heading for. I drove a rental car from Florida to Charleston AFB South Carolina on 6 September '01 to catch a flight to Costa Rica. However the Costa Rica flight was not taking passengers, and there wasn't another Air Force flight to Costa Rica until October. Those are the breaks. After a few days of waiting I caught a flight to Dover Delaware and from there to Germany. When you are trying to fly cheap you have to be flexible. I figured I could spend a few weeks in Germany, catch the Oktoberfest, return to the U.S. and see about another flight to Costa Rica. It didn't work out that way.
September 11 made it difficult to return to the U.S., so I made other plans. I went from Munich to the Czech Republic back to Munich for Oktoberfest then back to Prague then caught a cheap flight to Bangkok (Prague is a great place to find cheap flights) then went to Cambodia then back to Thailand then to Laos then back to Thailand and caught a flight to the U.S. on Christmas day. All the way around the world and didn't make it to Costa Rica. Oh well, I'll try again.
Let's see, about six and a half months, visiting Germany, Poland, Lithuania, St Petersburg Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey (though technically Turkey is mostly in Asia), Greece, Italy, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands--that's eighteen countries, or about one and a half weeks per country. That's not enough time to get to know a place, but at least I know the places I want to go back to and spend more time (Prague). Of course I would expand the list if I were rich (Prague and Paris), but being on a budget I'll stick with a realistic choice of a great, affordable place to be (Prague).
First the bad news, I didn't go on a wild rampage across Europe. I maintained a low profile and stayed out of trouble. No arrests, no confrontations with police--well, not with real police, and no need to bribe anyone, which disappointed one official. I almost made it the entire six months without getting ripped off, except for one sticky fingered taxi driver in Istanbul. I'm still p.o.'d about that one.
There were some entertaining moments though. Bag-day in St Petersburg, some useful information on bribing conventions when in Russia, a very entertaining beggar in Bucharest, a run in with the "Tourist Police" in Budapest (that one's worth reading about if you're going to Europe, it's a scam that is used in many countries), crossing the Rumanian border at night (watch your camera), dropping through an unmarked hole in the ground in Turkey to take a short walk underneath the ruins of Aphrodisias, and sharing a train car with a Bulgarian shoe smuggler. That last one wasn't too exciting, I just like the sound of it--"Bulgarian shoe smuggler".
The most interesting stuff happened in east/central Europe. I've read that some of the people in the former Warsaw Block countries don't like being thought of as east Europe; it smacks too much of Russia. Whatever. Most of this part of Europe is not nearly as well traveled as west Europe so things aren't as structured and predictable. This leaves more opportunity for interesting things to happen. West Europe has the most impressive museums, with the exception of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but east Europe is more fun. Also it's much cheaper, which again leaves more opportunity for fun. I want to go back, starting in Prague. Prague was a blast. No great stories to tell, just a beautiful place to hang out and drink beer. Best beer in the world for about fifty cents a half liter. I really liked Prague.
Travel in western Europe is much easier, predictable, and expensive. There ares lots of famous sights and lots of conventional travelers. I socialize better with unconventional people. If you're reading this because you are a friend of mine you'll probably concur. So there are many pictures in the western Europe pages, but not as many stories. I need to keep that in mind in choosing destinations--unconventional is good, so long as it is cheap and there is beer. I think that rules out Iran and Afghanistan.
Here is the first of many travel tips I have thrown in through-out this website: People planning a long sociable visit to Europe should review twentieth century history. That century had much more traumatic affects on Europe than the U.S. One consequence of this is the citizens there, even the young, are much more aware of modern history than the average American. Unless you are content to present yourself as a remarkably ignorant American, thereby confirming some unflattering stereotypes, a review of modern history is advisable. If you can't read up in advance, carry a decent history book with you.
Reading is easy when traveling, there are frequent periods when you have nothing else to do. I did more pleasure reading while I traveled than any other time in my adult life. Some classics, some history, some mythology and a little philosophy--general frivolous stuff I never had time for when working as an engineer.
I don't think the little philosophy I've read has improved me. I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and my favorite part doesn't have to do much with philosophy; it is where Durant describes Immanuel Kant with the sentence "He thought everything out carefully before acting; and therefore remained a bachelor all his life long." I love that sentence, it can be interpreted so many ways. I think I'll get it printed on a T-shirt.
I went off on an unnecessary tangent in the preceding paragraphs, and I'll do it again in the pages that follow. My mind works that way. I don't think my friends would recognize me if I didn't go off on occasional tangents. But that's enough tangents for this page. The frame to the left has the countries in the order that I visited them. I made separate pages for many of the cities, and the Louvre, to keep country pages to a reasonable size. Every page with pictures has thumbnail links to the pictures. In spite of breaking things up into many pages, some of the cities, like Rome and Prague, will take a while to download because they have many thumbnails in them. Just in case the frame to the left doesn't work, I have provided country links below. The same country links, plus an "Intro" link back to this page, are provided at the bottom of each of the country and city pages.
One disclaimer before ending this page; many spellings of European names and words are inaccurate best efforts. Some European languages make frequent use of `, ~, ^, and other symbols not on my keyboard. It is difficult to spell correctly when you don't have all the necessary symbols. There is a good reason for the symbols; these languages attempt to have a unique letter or letter combination for every sound used, so they can spell things phonetically. They have intelligent writing systems. Unlike English, where one letter can have many sounds and one sound can be designated by many letters or letter combinations. English writing also uses many silent letters; I don't know why. Learning written English is tough. I sympathize with those who grew up with a different language and attempt it.
Finally, if you want to write and let me know what a great job I did, just e-mail me below.