A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Expensive Beer, but the Bar is Alight!

A trip to North America's best sports bar (according to ESPN mobile)...

sunny 4 °C

Seeing as I wrote about a bar in the USA, I figured I should write about one in Canada as well.

Real Sports Bar and Grill is a newly opened bar in downtown Toronto, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who also own the Maple Leaf NHL team, Toronto FC soccer club and the Toronto Raptors. The bar was recently named the best sports bar in North America by ESPN Mobile.

It sure is big, and it sure is fancy. The TVs are massive! If you wanted to see an important game on a massive screen, Real Sports does seem a good place to do it.

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I hadn't quite filled up on chicken wings at the Anchor Bar, so I ordered them again along with a pint of beer. It is nice being unemployed - if only for a couple of weeks - as it allows one to drink in the afternoon with no shame at all.

While the atmosphere of the place was great, the food and drink is quite pricey. I'd only imagine the bill one would run up if you took a table on Superbowl Sunday and watched all four hours of the game plus the six hours of pre-game show. It would be in the thousands.

So, is ESPN right? The best sports bar in North America?

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It certainly is the prettiest. The prices, though, make me think they might be better places for a pint, a snack and the big game.

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Posted by GregW 07:54 Archived in Canada Tagged food Comments (0)

Who Says Buffalos can't fly...

Wings, Baby!

sunny 6 °C

On a Friday night back in 1964, a gang of friends arrived at the Anchor Bar at 1047 Main Street in Buffalo, New York. The gang was friends of the owners, and they were hungry. Dominic Bellissimo, the owner, asked his mother Teressa to fix them something to snack on. Teressa was about to make some chicken stock, and had a plate of chicken wings she was about to toss into the pot. Instead, she threw the wings into the fryer, and then put some hot sauce on the wings to flavour them. The group agreed the wings were very good, and soon the word spread about the new snack.

Dominic and Teressa had invented the Buffalo wing.

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After leaving Belize behind, I headed up to Toronto to visit family and friends. This included a impromptu bachelor party in Niagara Falls, Ontario - site of casinos, bars and ... ummm... other things that men might do on a bachelor night.

The next day, after a good nights rest at the Sheraton On The Falls hotel, we decided to head over to Buffalo to get some of the Anchor Bar's Buffalo wings.

The Anchor Bar is now famous for its wings, and the place is often jammed. We arrived just before the restaurant opened, and there was a 30 person line up. The line moved quickly, though, and we were soon inside and ordering a bucket and a double order of wings.

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It was my first time at the Anchor Bar, and I must say it was excellent. The food over here in London is very good, but there are a few foodie things that I miss from back in North America - Harvey's Hamburgers, Swiss Chalet chicken sauce and Buffalo wings. There are chicken wings available here in London, but mostly they are Chinese golden fried style, rather than Buffalo style. There are a few American chain restaurants that make Buffalo wings, but they aren't as good as they could be.

When heading to Toronto, I knew once of the things I wanted to get was Buffalo wings. And to get them at the Anchor Bar was an extra special treat.

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Wings, Baby!

Posted by GregW 07:14 Archived in USA Tagged food Comments (0)

Island Life

Asking the inevitable question of any quasi-nomadic soul - where am I going to end my days?

sunny 30 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

I often get asked about what my "plan" is, regarding my time in England. As I was interviewing for jobs recently, one interviewer asked the nicely worded question, "Is living in London a time-limited experiment, or are you here for the long haul?"

"Well, I don't have much of a plan," I say when asked this question. "I'm in London as long as opportunities suit me. I doubt, though, I'd retire here. Come that day, I'll probably look some something less grey, cold and rainy. Something less crowded and busy. A slower pace of life."

That, my friends, is the truth. There is in my mind no question of what my future holds as I work - it'll be living wherever and for however long a place suits me. Maybe I'll be in London for the next 20 years, or maybe I'll be in Shanghai or Sao Paulo or Toronto in five years time. Who knows? I'll see what happens.

The harder question is what to do once I have enough money saved up in the bank and am finally sick of working? Where to go then, and what to do with my life?

I have, over the past few years, imagined an island paradise as my ideal retirement spot. Something with beers on the beach, the NHL on satellite TV and fresh crab to eat every day.

Belize is my first island getaway since moving to the UK, and thus this potential retirement dream was in my mind as I took the water taxi to Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker is five-mile long island about 20 miles off-shore from Belize City. The place is quite laid back and easy-going, with little to do except snorkel, dive, drink beer and laze around in the sun. The waters are calm, with the Belize Barrier Reef to the east keeping big waves from hitting the shore. There is a small nature park near the airport, but mostly it is a place to either get up early and go diving or to just sit back and relax.

Beachfront Road, Caye Caulker

Beachfront Road, Caye Caulker


Caye Caulker boat, trees and deep blue water

Caye Caulker boat, trees and deep blue water


Go Slow, two graveyards and no hospital

Go Slow, two graveyards and no hospital


Pier with Boots

Pier with Boots


Crab at Cayo Hicaco Park

Crab at Cayo Hicaco Park


Crane

Crane

I was just interested in the relaxing, so skipped the dive and snorkelling and just chilled out.

Lazy Lizard bar patio

Lazy Lizard bar patio


Tropical Paradise Resort beachfront

Tropical Paradise Resort beachfront


Belikin Beer

Belikin Beer

During all this chilling out, I had decent amount of time to ponder, so I pondered life as an islander. Could I see myself retired, living on an island like Caye Caulker?

Walking around the island, as I had walked around many other islands and beach towns around the Caribbean and Central America before, I spied many an ex-pat American, Canadian or Brit. They walk around, tanned and casual looking, on their way to the bar or dive shop they own.

Looking closer, though, I noticed that they all have a somewhat haunted visage, like the 1000 yard stare of the World War II soldiers pictured in Life Magazine. They move slowly and casually like native islanders, but somehow it is a cloak that seems ill fitting. I overheard a few conversations between expats. The newer ones complained - often veiled in a jovial, joking manner - about the slowness of the life. The expats who had been there for a long time just sounded lost.

One evening, sitting in one of the beachfront restaurants eating a $20 lobster and enjoying a cold Belikin beer, two owners of restaurants were discussing a turf argument they had with a third restaurateur. At another point, a woman who runs an internet cafe was discussing how she had finally got her internet connection updated to a faster speed after a struggle. I realized that far from the "dream" of a casual life of running a bar on a beach, these expats were trying to run a small business in a location where the infrastructure for running a business was less evolved than they would have expected from back at home.

After two and a half days on the island, suffering from a sliced toe (thanks to wearing sandals and encountering broken glass) and a massive sunburn (thanks to counterfeit sunscreen), I hobbled myself to a restaurant near my hotel.

L'oreal fake sunscreen which caused my sunburn

L'oreal fake sunscreen which caused my sunburn


My blood all over the Bathroom Floor after slicing open my toe

My blood all over the Bathroom Floor after slicing open my toe

Sitting alone, and with only one other table in the restaurant, the waiter had a good amount of time to speak with me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"I live in London, England, but am from Canada originally," I replied.

"Oh, London. I'd love to visit there," he said. "Things are so slow here. Nothing ever happens." I nodded, thinking about the afternoon crush on the tube, constant announcements of delays due to a "person under a train" and the three days when my flat was enclosed behind yellow police tape after a man was stabbed to death on my front stairs.

"What do you do for work?" the waiter continued.

"I work for an IT company," I said.

"Really? I am studying computers," the waiter said. "Yeah, I want to write video games. Get off this island and move to California and be a software engineer," he said, starry eyed imaging his life in Silicon Valley. I knew the look on his face. It was the same one that came across mine when I sometimes thought about living life on a slow, tropical island.

I think for now I'll file away my dream of living on a tropical island. Maybe I'll feel differently in 25 years when it comes time to retire, but for now, I'll take the hustle and bustle of London town.

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in Belize Tagged beaches travel_philosophy migration_philosophy Comments (0)

Accepting Whatever Comes

From "Are you frickin' kiddin' me?" to "no worries, mon" in 2 foible filled but easy-going days

sunny 26 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

"Where you headed?" the taxi driver asked.

"Water taxi for Caye Caulker," I said, handing him my backpack. "How much?"

"6 Belize," he said, putting my backpack in the trunk of his dented and dusty Toyota.

Six Belize dollars equalled three US dollars. Not bad. I had no idea how far the water taxi dock was, but even if it was only a few blocks, three dollars didn’t seem that much of a rip off. Heck, it would cost me that much to go one stop on the tube in London. Besides, less was likely to go wrong if I took a taxi than if I try and walk when I had no idea the route.

"What could go wrong taking a taxi?" I thought to myself as the taxi driver slammed his trunk shut and pointed me to the passenger side door. Neither of us noticed as a small black cord slipped into the trunk.

= = =

The three months prior to my trip to Belize was pretty hectic. Even though I had only recently started a new job, it wasn't turning out to be what I had hoped, so I had started to look for a new job. Juggling my present job, a job search and various issues around my flat with a broken boiler and leaking showers, I was wound up pretty well. Upon getting a new job and putting in my notice at my old work, I decided to take some time off to unwind. October 30th until November 14th was set aside on my personal calendar for some vacation time.

With a new job, I knew getting back to visit family over Christmas would be hard, so I decided that part of my time off should include a trip back to Toronto. Wanting to use some of my Air Canada Aeroplan points for the trip, I then played around with various combinations of trips involving a "London-Toronto-Someplace Warm" triangle. I eventually wound up booking a week in Belize, a place I knew nothing about before heading there except:

1. It used to be called British Honduras
2. It was a small country bordering Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala
3. There is a bar in the airport run by a little man who looks like an Oompa-Loompa called Jet

(I knew that last point as I had spent 3 hours waiting in the secure area of the Belize airport back when flying down to Honduras as the pilots waited for the fog-closed La Ceiba airport to reopen. Myself and the rest of the holiday charter plane drank Jet's bar dry of booze that day.)

I did some research and formulated a rough plan for my trip. A few days inland in San Ignacio to try and see some Mayan Ruins, and then a couple days on one of the Islands in the Atlantic chilling out. I figured out that Belize uses the Belize dollar - not readily available in the UK - but also would accept the US dollar at a fixed exchange rate of two Belize dollars to one US dollar. As I was flying through Houston, I decided to pull out a few hundred at an ATM in the Houston airport so I would have money upon arrival in Belize.

I plugged my card into the Chase bank ATM in Terminal E of Houston's airport, but instead of getting my US dollars, I got a message saying "Invalid transaction." I thought nothing of it at the time, figuring I would just pick up money upon arrival in Belize City. What I didn't know what was happening behind the scenes.

In London, I don't take out much money at all. Everyone here uses their bank cards to pay for stuff. Only the smallest transactions - like buying a pack of gum - is handled via cash. Belize, on the other hand, is a mostly cash society. I knew I would need cash for transport, food, lodging and tours. So in Houston, I punched in a substantial withdrawl.

Computers in the fraud department of my bank track all my transactions, and build a pattern of my usual transactions. If it notices something weird or out of pattern, it decides to lock out my cards. Going from an almost cash-free life in London to a cash heavy life in Belize was not expected by my bank's computers, so they automatically shut down my debit and credit cards. I didn't know it, but my attempt to withdraw money in Houston left me with no options upon arrival in Belize. For money, I had what was on me. That amounted to £30 and a twenty dollar US bill that I had.

I arrived in Belize, and was unable to withdraw any money. I tried my debit card and my credit card in multiple machines, and was unable to take any money out. I tried calling my bank, but with my credit card frozen, I was unable to put a long distance call through. I spent half-an-hour wandering aimlessly through the Belize City airport, trying to think of a plan. Finally, I exchanged my £30 for eighty Belize dollars, and bought myself an international long-distance card. I made a call to England, was able to unlock my accounts and finally was able to take out some Belize money. However, already I was two hours behind my original plan.

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From Belize City airport, I took a taxi to the bus station, and then a bus to San Ignacio in the interior of the country. I settled into a hotel near where the bus dropped me off, and spent a couple of days sight-seeing.

The foibles continued over these days. I tried to book a trip to Caracol, a Mayan site about 2 hours from San Ignacio, but no trips were running due to low tourist numbers. I ended up booking a trip to Barton Caves, but during my tour the tour guide's pickup truck stalled twice and needed a jump. One of the rivers that we needed to ford was too high, so we ended up having to cross a rickety rope bridge and walk the last half hour. Upon arrival at Barton Caves the lighting wasn't working, so I had to wait an hour while the tour guide tried to get the lighting to work. The tours, buses and restaurants all had slow service, and the beer was often warmish.

The thing about all these issues was that I couldn't do a single thing about any of them. More than that, they weren't really my responsibility to fix. In my life back in London, where I have a job to do, deadlines to meet, bills to pay and things around the house to fix, every issue is something more to add onto my pile of things to worry about. In Belize, on holiday, none of it is my responsibility. I can sit back and let someone else worry about it.

In a weird way, it's nice to see the problems and know they aren't mine to solve.

And, in the the balance the food was good and the cave tour was impressive.

Barton Creek Cave Entrance

Barton Creek Cave Entrance


Barton Creek Cave stalagmite

Barton Creek Cave stalagmite


Fried Chicken and Motorscooters

Fried Chicken and Motorscooters


Hi-Et Hotel Balcony

Hi-Et Hotel Balcony

By the time I had returned two days later to Belize City, and was catching a taxi from the bus station to my frantic brain had been tuned down to the slowly-slowly life of Central America. So upon arrival at the water taxi dock, when the taxi driver tried to open his trunk to retrieve my backpack and said, "Oh mon, where is the string? I can't open the trunk without the string!", I wasn't phased.

It transpired that the latch on his trunk was broken, and he had rigged a string to pull open the latch from the inside. By hanging the string out, he could tug on it, which would unlatch the trunk and pop it open. Without the string, no way into the trunk.

"Whatever," I said. "We'll figure out a way to get it out."

For the next twenty minutes, the taxi driver, myself and one of the workers at the water taxi company casually discussed options to get my backpack out of the car. Finally, the taxi driver pulled apart the back seat of his Toyota to get into the trunk and retrieve my back.

"Thanks," I said, handing over my fare.

"Sorry about the trunk," he said.

I shrugged. "No worries," I said. I had come to Belize to relax and get away from my stressful life, and as long as I get there in the end, that is all that matters.

Posted by GregW 03:06 Archived in Belize Tagged travel_philosophy Comments (8)

The Mayan Calendar Conundrum

Sitting atop a Mayan temple, discussing the end of the world with a swarm of dragonflies

sunny 26 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

I stand, legs wide in a sturdy stance, watching the far bank approach. The creak of the hand-cranked wheel and the intermittent buzz of insects in the air are the only sounds I can hear until finally the ferry pilot speaks.

“Once we reach the shore, just follow the road. It is about one mile up, and then you will reach the entrance,” he says.

The entrance to the stone lady - Xunantunich.

The hand-cranked ferry reaches the far shore of the Mopan River, just off the Benque Road. I step off, wipe my brow and reposition my hat against the late morning sun. I set off up the road, one mile away from the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich.

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- - -

The Mayan civilisation flourished in Central America, most especially in the Yucatán Peninsula, until 900 A.D. During the period from 250 A.D. until 900 A.D., some of the most impressive Mayan cities and temple sites were built, including the Mayan sites I have seen previously at Chechen Itza and Tulum in Mexico.

Xunantunich, in the interior of Belize, sits just a few miles from the Guatemala border. The site covers approximately a square mile, with the centre of the site consisting of a plaza with three structures in a row.

The main building on the site is called El Castillo, a 140 foot tall structure with a number of steep stairways and impressive stucco friezes.

El Castillo

El Castillo


Xunantunich side building

Xunantunich side building


main plaza

main plaza


El Castillo

El Castillo


Frieze on El Castillo

Frieze on El Castillo


Frieze on El Castillo

Frieze on El Castillo


one of the smaller plazas

one of the smaller plazas


Xunantunich from middle temple building

Xunantunich from middle temple building

Being low season in Belize, I arrive to find I am almost alone at Xunantunich. As I walk up into the main plaza, a tour group of four (plus a guide) are just leaving. I wander towards the main pyramid - El Castillo - and meet just one other traveller, a solo woman wandering the site without a guide, like I am.

I climb to the top of El Castillo, and look out over the countryside. Off in the distance, the Belize countryside and the borders of Guatamela. Nearer to us, aerial views of the other temples. The air is thick and sticky, not a hint of wind. The only disturbance is a swarm of dragonflies flittering around in the air.

I sit down atop the temple, lean against the hot stone and think about the end of days.

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C33_Xunantunich.jpg

For those who like to think about the end of days, the Mayan has most recently come to prominence due to their calendar. The Mayan Long Count calendar, one of many different calendar systems they had, consists of a number of repeating, cyclical counts, each represented as a separate symbol. The long count consists of the five ascending cycles of kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k'atuns (20 tuns), and bak'tuns (20 k'atuns).

My birthday is represented as 12.17.17.3.16, and the day I visited Xunantunich (October 31st, 2010) represented as 12.19.17.14.18. (For the really pedantic, this is using the "Goodman, Martinez, Thompson" or GMT correlation).

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It is often been quoted that the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. This is when the all the four lower digits reach zero and the highest order digit (the bak’tun) should tick over to 13. According to Mayan tradition, we are currently living in the fourth world (the previous three having not worked out), and like the three world’s previous, ours will end at the start of the 14th bak’tun (13.0.0.0.0).

Therefore, say the doomsayers, the world ends on that day.

The historical evidence for this, though, isn’t clear. The ending dates of the previous three worlds aren’t definitively known, and some Mayan inscriptions do have dates beyond the 14th bak’tun, though not rendered in exactly the same way. Some scholars even think that the new world should begin on the 15th bak’tun, not the 14th.

So rest easy, the world won’t end in a little over two years.

Just in case, though, I’m glad I got to see Xunantunich before then. Just in case the end of days is coming.

Posted by GregW 23:04 Archived in Belize Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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