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Entries about air travel

My Life at Gatwick

A short little experience of the life of Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

semi-overcast 15 °C

When you travel a lot, you get into a routine. I used to be able to pack in 10 minutes, walk out the door and never forget a thing. I stopped travelling frequently for business a few years ago. In my mind, though, I can still pack in 10 minutes. However, without the routine, I am forgetting things. Sometimes it is little things - toothpaste, a baggy for my liquids, sun glasses. Recently, though, I had a biggest issue yet. I got the airport and forgot my passport.

I was flying to Florence for a short break. I packed a bag, took some Euros, and even managed to print off the address and directions to my hotel. The next day I headed for the airport. 45 minutes and a train ride later, I was standing in line the Meridiana desk, looking at the folks ahead of me. They pulled out their passports, and I was suddenly gripped by an absolutely horrific thought. My passport was sitting on my dresser back in Battersea.

Panicking, I got a cab which cost me £70 to take me home and back to Gatwick. When it was clear I wouldn't make it back from my 9:45 flight, I got on the phone and rebooked an 11:25 flight. That cost me an additional £170. Before booking, I asked the driver if I could make an 11:25. "No problem," he said.

Problem - traffic. Arrived at Gatwick at 11:00 and the flight had closed. No amount of pleading could get them to switch their opinion. I even pulled out, "My poor 83 year old father is waiting for me in Florence." Sympathy from the folks at Easyjet, but basically got the stiff arm of "rules is rules."

Thoroughly confuddled, I finally booked the third flight of the day, costing me £230. It didn't leave until 19:55, meaning I had more than eight hours to kill before my next flight.

My immediate concern was getting in touch with my Dad and letting him know I wasn't going to be in Florence by 1 PM. I called home to Toronto, and fired off emails to numerous people in both Italy, England and Canada. It was a tense hour, but I was finally able to get in touch with my father at the hotel. Crisis averted, I finally relaxed for the first time in four hours. I looked at my watch - it was just before noon in London.

At that point, I decided to settle in and hang out for my eight hour wait. I couldn't check in for another six hours, so I was relegated to the amusements before security. They consisted, in the North terminal of Gatwick, of a pub, an arcade, a few shops and some seats with a TV on the BBC news.

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So there I was, a pseudo Tom Hanks from the movie The Terminal, trapped in an airport and having to make his life there. I bought a copy of the Economist and pulled out a copy of a Gresham thriller that I had in my bad. I watched some TV, did some shopping, played some video games and had a meal and a few pints in the pub.

It was dull. I wouldn't recommend spending over 8 hours in Gatwick. It wasn't awful, but it was without any joy at all. Simply functional.

It wasn't until 6 PM, when I went to check in for my flight, that I finally realised I could have gotten on the train, spend 45 minutes on the train and spent most the day at home - or wandering around London or even hanging out in Brighton by the sea-side. The four hours of panic in booking, re-booking and re-re-booking flights, as well as trying to inform my father, had taken it all out of me. I had turned off my brain and hadn't even thought that I had 8 hours to get out the airport and get back to London.

It is, ultimately, more proof that perhaps I am losing my knack at travel. When I used to do it every week, I would have never forgotten anything, certainly not something as important as my passport. And missing a flight - or even two - I would have figured out a way to get to Florence quicker, or at least how to take advantage of a long layover.

I don't know how to feel about the series of mistakes I made that day in arranging travel. Part of me feels somewhat sad that I have lost my knack of travelling. And the other part, I am a little bit happy that I have settled enough in London that I no longer have that knack of travelling.

After so many years of consulting and travelling, it's almost like I am becoming a normal human being.

Posted by GregW 13:36 Archived in England Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part II)

Caye Caulker, sunburns and cheap lobster dinners... Nice.

sunny 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

Bus, Taxi and Boat, San Ignacio to Caye Caulker, November 1, 2010

The next morning I caught the bus back to Belize City. This time I was on a BBDC bus. Similar to the journey up to San Ignacio, though without the radio (IFE is broken! I wonder if I can get 500 points?). Unlike the National bus, there was no overhead luggage rack, so my luggage rode up front with the driver.

From the bus station, I got a taxi to the water taxi dock. $BZ 6 for the short trip. I threw my bag in the taxi’s trunk and climbed in.

Upon arrival at the bus station, however, the driver encountered a small issue. 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!"

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.

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 backpack.

By this point, I’d had my share of foibles on the trip, and was becoming quite relaxed about everything, so I wasn’t too fused about the lost 20 minutes. The great thing about travelling in a place like Belize, you learn to relax and take it all in stride. I wrote about this on my blog, where I learn to accept whatever comes.

There are two ways to get to Caye Caulker - by air or by boat. A couple air carriers do the short trip from Belize City to Caye Caulker, and you can also arrange flights from other cities in neighbouring countries.

I decided to take the boat, though. Something romantic about skimming across the top of the waves towards an island paradise.

The water taxi costs $BZ 20 one way, or $BZ 35 return. The trip takes a little over one hour.

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The ride is mostly smooth, as the water is calm - protected from big waves by the Belize Barrier Reef off the coast. There were a few big jolts, but that’s to be expected when on a boat.

The boats aren’t really set up great to allow you to see what passes, with seats low in the boat. There are some seats at the back in the open air, but they fill up quickly and you do run the chance of facing a sudden rain shower, as we did. The folks in the exterior seats all tried to cram back inside the boat as soon as the rain starting pouring down.

Tropical Paradise Hotel, Caye Caulker, November 1 - November 4, 2010

Unlike San Ignacio, I knew where I was going in Caye Caulker. Of course, its pretty easy in that the island is long and thin, and there is only a few roads that run the length of the island. I headed from the water taxi dock south towards the Tropical Paradise Hotel, a well recommended location based on trip advisor and other sites.

My cabana was $BZ 80 for a room with air conditioning, satellite TV, ensuite, and bar fridge. The hotel has a private beach and pier. There is a restaurant and bar attached, though I never tried it out.

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Room interior

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Cabana
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Private beach

No complaints about the hotel. A good location, though the island is so small any place is a decent location. Everything in the room worked as expected, and hot water was plentiful.

Caye Caulker Sights, Sounds, Food and Drink

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.

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There are numerous tour guides available if you want to arrange a day or half-day snorkelling or diving. They also do sunset cruises for the romantically minded. I was just looking to chill out. I never tried out any of the tour companies, so have no recommendations.

Seafood is the speciality of Caye Caulker. During the day, I grabbed a BBQ’d conch with rice and salad from the guy with the BBQ on the beach just north of the Sports Bar and Bamboo Bar. $BZ 14 for a full meal.

Bamboo bar has good food with an ocean view and sand between your toes as you eat. $BZ 35 for a lobster dinner.

Marin’s (close to the Tropical Paradise Hotel and beside the I&I Reggae bar) has excellent food, priced less than the beachfront restaurants. I had garlic shrimp for $BZ 20, which included chips and salsa appetiser on the house.

For lunch, check out the sandwich place beside the sports bar. For $BZ 8, I had the most amazing cheese burger. Jimmy Buffet was jumping through my head!

For drinks, the Lazy Lizard is a nice place by the split, and includes picnic tables in shallow water if you want to relax in the water. The Reef Sports Bar has TVs with American and European sports, in the event you want to catch up on your NFL, NHL or English Premier League while away.

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Lazy Lizard bar

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Sports Bar

More on Caye Caulker on my blog, including my realisation that while the islands are a nice place to visit, I am probably not cut out for living the island life just yet.

Water Taxi Return, Taxi to Airport

I caught the 8:30 AM water taxi back to Belize City. Checked in at the dock, provided my return ticket for inspection, and handed over my bag to be loaded at 8:00 AM. The Water Taxi showed up on time at 8:30, and we were away.

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Baggage Handling, Water Taxi, Caye Caulker

Back to Belize City in just over an hour. I grabbed a taxi to the airport, this time putting my backpack in the back seat, rather than in the trunk. $BZ 50 to the airport.

Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE

Checked in with Continental was quick, as there was only one person in line ahead of me. I did get four boarding passes handed to me, which was weird because I only had two flights.

“I think Mr. Andrews-slash-Arthur would probably want these,” I said, handing back two of the boarding passes. The check-in agent sheepishly took them back.

Security was quick - only two people in front of me.

Past security there was a couple of shops - I bought two t-shirts as gifts ($BZ 20 each).

For drinks or food, there is Jet’s Bar. While I had never been to Belize before, by the way I count having “been” to a country, I had spent some time at the Belize Airport when a flight to Honduras was diverted to Belize back in 2005 when the airport at La Ceiba was closed.

All the passengers were let off the plane and into the airport in Belize City. We stayed 3 1/2 hours in Belize (beautiful day there, sunny and warm), but were not allowed to leave the international departures area. Therefore, most of the plane hit Jet's Bar in the airport. Jet's quite a character, a small man with a big presence. Most people ordered bottles of Belikin, a local brew. About 3 hours later, though, we had drunk Jet out of Belikin.

Jet’s is still there, and still wandering around the airport trying to drum up business. I had a couple of Belikins before my flight.

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Jet’s Bar

Jet is a small man - probably only five foot tall, if that. He has worked at the airport for years, and when the bar became available to buy, he bought it and renamed it after himself. He serves (according to him) the best rum punch in Belize, along with the best of everything else as well.

I noticed, looking up at the pictures on the wall, that Jet has taken a lot of pictures with his patrons, and they often look very similar. Jet, hand outstretched in a thumbs up, his head resting against the chest of the prettiest woman in the group.

I pointed this out to a couple beside me, a young set of honeymooners. To test the theory, they got a picture with Jet. The man tried to stand next to Jet, but Jet rearranged the picture, putting himself in the middle. He stretched out his hand, put his thumb up and tilted his head to the side until it rested firmed against her breast.

Conclusion

Belize was an interesting place. I had my share of frustrations and troubles there - my frozen accounts, my backpack getting locked out, David’s Adventures issues with his truck, along with getting severely burnt after buying counterfeit sunscreen and cutting my toe open on broken glass.

However, already these foibles are fading away, and I am left with a couple mental snapshots of my time in Belize.

The smell of burning fields as the bus drove through the night towards San Ignacio.

The water on my feet as I quaffed a Belikin beer at the Lazy Lizard on Caye Caulker.

Dining on garlic shrimp during a thunderstorm at Marin’s restaurant.

And most vividly, standing atop a Mayan temple, with no one else in sight, the jungles of Belize and Guatemala stretching out before me, with Duran Duran running through my head.

Take a chance
Like all dreamers can't find another way
You don't have to dream it all, just live a day

Posted by GregW 14:07 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Belize Trip Report: New Romantic Adventures (Part I)

A week in Belize, a week in Toronto and flights to and fro. Just live a day, as they say.

overcast 27 °C
View Belize before the Mayan Calendar Ends on GregW's travel map.

The following blog entry is, in fact, a copy. It was written by me, but originally posted on Flyertalk.com, a website for frequent fliers. I wrote it for the Trip Reports forum, where fellow frequent fliers write about their trips. That is why there is a few bits and bobs about what the flight and food and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) is like. If you want to read the original (with a little more on Canada), check it out here. Otherwise, enjoy.

Introduction

Mayan temples in the jungles of Central America always remind me of the video for Duran Duran’s 1983 song “Save a Prayer,” even though that video was filmed in Sri Lanka. Wandering around previous Mayan sites I have visited always made me feel like a New Romantic merged with Indiana Jones. Thus the draw to the former Mayan territories the span Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.

Due to situations with work and family, I hadn’t had a proper holiday since last November. Thus, feeling burnt out and in need of a rest, when the opportunity arose to grab two weeks away between jobs, I, much like J. Peterman on Seinfeld ran away to Burma (you may know it as Myanmar, Elaine), I ran away to British Honduras (you may know it as Belize).

The timing, as I said, was related to me switching jobs. I knew that as low man on the totem pole at my new job, I wouldn’t be able to get away for Christmas. Therefore, part of the two weeks I would spend back in Toronto, where I am from originally and where my family lives. So, with two weeks to plan, and hoping to use some of my cache of either Air Canada or Continental points, I started planning.

Belize wasn’t originally my destination, or rather not my only destination. I was open to any place in the Caribbean or Central America. Sun and sand and warm water was the only goal. I tried a number of combinations of destinations and dates, switching around whether I was in Toronto first, or second.

I did my planning on both the Aeroplan and Continental One Pass sites, eventually deciding on using Aeroplan points for a LHR-IAH-BZE, BZE-IAH-YYZ, YYZ-LHR routing. So close to the travel dates, I wasn’t able to get business class - at least not on the transatlantic LHR-IAH daytime flight or overnight YYZ-LHR routing where long flights, nice meals and lie flat beds would make the most difference. Therefore, I decided to book it in economy.

The IT failed me here. I was able to get to the point of booking, but the booking engine kept coming back with an error. I had to ring up the Aeroplan Centre to get the flights booked. 75K and $CDN 345 lighter, everything was booked.

West London to LHR Terminal 4, 30 October 2010

The morning started very early. I have used Addison Lee to get to the airport before, but then work was paying. For leisure travel on my own dime, I decided to try the cheaper Airport Direct. £30 from West London to LHR. Unfortunately, it didn’t start well. The driver didn’t show up at the appointed time. Ten minutes passed, and I started worrying about getting to the airport and coming up with alternative plans, when finally he came round the corner at the top of my street. I walked out to greet him, and he zipped right by me, stopping 100 feet down the street in front of a man who was warming up his car. I stood out in the middle of the street, starting to fume.

The driver and man conversed for a moment, and I saw the man point back towards me. The driver put his van in reverse, and squealed backward towards me. As he approached, I realised he wasn’t going to slow down.

“Jesus, watch out!” the man down the street called out.

I quickly moved aside, and swatted the van as he passed me. Hearing the bang, and applied the breaks with a jolt. I climbed into the van, and made sure to do up my seat belt, somewhat concerned about what the trip to Terminal 4 might bring.

The driver made up any lost time, driving like Nigel Mansell on the mostly empty roads of an early Saturday morning. I arrived with time to spare at Heathrow.

Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled much recently, and my Aeroplan Elite status had long ago lapsed, so I bought a couple bottles of Diet Cherry Coke (two for £1.70 at WH Smith), and waited at the gate.

CO 35 LHR - IAH 30 October 2010

Aircraft: 777. I had a window seat on the right of plane, around half way down. I realise I have already thrown away my boarding passes, so I can’t say exactly what seat. It was, however, comfortable and the leg room was fine for me (5 foot 9).

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Inflight Entertainment (IFE): Personal entertainment units, with movies, TV, music and games. The units seemed quite good. I have often found the Air Canada ones having poor sound, and I have to put the volume at full. The Continental ones I had no problem hearing. Additionally, I didn’t have to sit through any adverts at the start of the movies. Pay attention Air Canada! I watched three movies - The A-Team (“Overkill is underrated”), Robin Hood and Prince of Persia. I think the low oxygen environment aids in the enjoyment of movies that I would have found unbearable at ground level. They weren’t bad.

I tried some of the games, but was underwhelmed. Then again, I am not a gamer.

The IFE did freeze with about 2 hours left in the flight, but was rebooted and I ended the flight listening to some music.

Meal: The first meal was beef brisket with salad, cream cheese and crackers, carrots and broccoli (steamed) and potatoes. The beef was quite good - very tender and with a good flavour. Desert was an apple crumble that looked so dire I didn’t even try it.

The snack before landing was a hot ham and cheese sandwich with a packet of crisps and a small chocolate. It was edible, but hardly impressive.

The flight took off and landed on time.

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Houston Airport (IAH)

As an international transfer with no checked luggage, I used the “One Stop” line. It was at this point, worth it, as there was only two people ahead of me and I was through USA CBP in just a few minutes. (It didn’t work out so well on my return, as the line was longer and moved much slower than the regular line, but I’ll cover that later). One Stop allows you to skip through the luggage pick-up area, and get back to airside via a short path to security.

Security line was short, and security seemed same as ever. I had been concerned, as the toner cartridge bomb had just been the day before, and they had spoken on the news of increased security measures.

I had a short transfer window at IAH. I wanted to accomplish just one thing - to get out some US dollars to use in Belize. Belize uses the Belize dollar - pegged at an exchange rate of $BZ 2 to $US 1 - but the US dollar is well accepted. I knew I would need a bit of cash, as I was planning at staying at budget hotels which didn’t take credit cards. So I punched in a $500 withdrawal from a Chase Bank machine.

“The transaction is invalid,” said the machine back to. “Please contact your bank.”

“Ah well,” I thought. “I can get some Belize dollars upon arrival at the airport in Belize City.”

What I didn’t know, at that moment, was that a computer in the United Kingdom had decided that my attempted withdrawal was “suspicious.” That decision by an automated brain an ocean away would come to vex me in a few hours, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

CO 1628 IAH - BZE 30 October 2010

Aircraft: 737-800. Another window seat, this time on the left side of the plane. Power plugs at every seat.

IFE: DirecTV, for $US 6. I didn’t buy it - that’s why I had a book and an iPod. They said DirecTV was available, but on the flight back said it wasn’t because we were outside the continental USA. I am not sure what would have happened when we crossed the border into Mexico - would the TV have still worked?

Food: A diet Coke and pretzels. Everything else cost money.

A generally uneventful flight, though the guy beside me did have the same jacket as me, bought at NEXT in the UK. He was English, and turns out he was just starting a job in Belize. Keeping the British in British Honduras, I suppose.

Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport, Belize City, BZE

I arrived at BZE, were we disembarked via steps and across the tarmac into the air conditioned customs area. Customs wasn’t too bad. It took about 20 minutes to clear. From there, straight out the door as I was travelling without a checked bag. Others on my flight were still waiting for their bags.

Just outside the secure area was a cash machine. I tried to take out some Belize dollars, but was rebuffed twice - transactions denied. I swallowed my distaste for it, and decided to try a cash advance on my credit card. Again denied.

I examined my situation. I had only brought my debit and credit cards from the UK, leaving my Canadian based cards at home, as I have little money in the chequing account and no easy way to pay off balances on my Canadian based Visa card. I had £30 and $US 30 in cash.

I tried making a call to my bank back in the UK using my credit card, but obviously it was rejected. I was starting to panic. The money I had might be enough to get me to Belize City, but without a working credit card and little cash on hand, I couldn’t afford anywhere to stay.

I wandered up to the second story of the airport, and out onto the viewing platform. I watched as a few local flights took off, and tried to calm myself. Things looked bad, but I would be able to figure something out. I wasn’t actually broke, just temporarily unable to access my money. After 10 minutes to psyching myself up, I went down to try and tackle the problem again.

I exchanged my £30 for Belize dollars, receiving $BZ 80.10 back. Just about to walk away and plan my next step, I had a brainstorm.

“Excuse me, is there somewhere to get an international calling card?” I asked.

The woman thought about it for a moment, and discussed it with a co-worker. They finally remembered a BTL (Belize Telemedia Limited) store across the parking lot. I wandered over and bought myself a $BZ 30 phone card, which the man said should be enough for a 30 minute call to the UK.

I got through to the bank, and then was on hold for 15 minutes. I was starting to sweat, wondering if I should have bought a longer calling card, when someone finally came on. Another 10 minutes and a transfer to the fraud department, and the situation was resolved.

“Can I ask something,” I said before hanging up. “I travel often, and haven’t had trouble before. I know you are supposed to tell your bank when you travel, but I never do. Would that have helped in this situation?”

The answer was unexpected, but honest. “No,” the fraud advisor said. “It would stop us from manually putting a freeze on your account, but this was a freeze that was computer generated. It stops suspicious activity whether abroad or at home.”

I bought an ice cold Coke and headed back up to the viewing platform, to wait the 10 minutes the fraud advisor said it would take for my card to reactivate. I thought about what the advisor had said. I realised that in the UK I hardly ever use cash, preferring to pay by debit card with my chip and pin. Any large withdrawal, whether in Houston, Belize City or Bermondsey was going to be out of character, I suppose.

Fifteen minutes later (just to be safe), I went back down to the cash machine. I held my breath as the machine thought, and breathed a sigh of relief when it told me to collect my Belize dollars. Newly minted, I headed out of the airport and got a taxi to the bus station in Belize City.

My key lesson, always bring enough cash to get you through the first couple days of travel. You never know when you might get stranded.

Belize Dollars - not as easy to get as I would have hoped.
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National Bus Company, Belize City to San Ignacio, 30 October 2010

It cost a flat rate $BZ 50 ($US 25 - remember a fixed 2:1 exchange rate) to get from the airport to the Novello bus terminal in Belize City.

From there, I grabbed the first bus to San Ignacio. Because of the money issues, I was running almost an hour and a half behind my schedule, but buses run frequently from Belize City, so it wasn’t an issue.

Regular bus service in Belize (which means non-express) is provided in old Blue Bird school buses. On my trip to San Ignacio, there were overhead racks (metal brackets and wooden shelves) on the bus for luggage storage, though that isn’t the case on all buses, and you may have to leave luggage up front by the driver or at the back of the bus. A few buses have undercarriage storage.

The bus costs $BZ 7, which isn’t bad for a 120 kilometre journey. It takes between 2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on the number of stops that the bus makes. The buses act as both local and intercity buses.

A sample of a Belize bus
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I wouldn’t say the buses are chicken buses - they are nicer than that. Though, the woman sitting beside me did have a fried chicken dinner that she had brought aboard. The seats aren’t very comfortable, and while I am not a tall man, I did find my knees squished pretty firmly against the seat in front of me.

IFE consisted of the radio, tuned to a radio station that played 80s tunes, hip-hop and dancehall. A strange mix, to be sure. They did play Thriller by Michael Jackson twice on the journey. It was only on the second playing that I clued in that the song was in celebration of Hallowe’en the next evening.

Night fell as we drove. The windows were all open, which kept the bus cool and drowned out the radio when on the open road. Obviously the end of the harvest season, farmers were burning off their fields, and for most of the journey the bus had the slight aroma of burning fields.

Hotel Hi-Et, San Ignacio, October 30 - November 1, 2010

The bus dropped me at the main intersection in central San Ignacio. I had a list of a couple places to check out based on internet recommendations. What I didn’t have was a map of San Ignacio that listed where the hotels were. I ended up being able to see the Hotel Hi-Et from my vantage point, and as it was on my list, I decided to check it out.

The Hi-Et (no affiliation with Hyatt - it is named after Ethel, one of the founders of the hotel) is a budget hotel spread over a couple houses on West Street, connected by walkways. Rooms were $BZ 40 with an ensuite or $BZ 25 for a shared bath. I took an ensuite. Rooms are clean. No air conditioning, but their are ceiling fans.

The rooms were clean, and the bed was comfortable. The shower had ample hot water. At the corner of West Street and Bullet Tree Road, it can be a bit noisy, but even on Saturday night the noise died down by about 11:30, and I had a peaceful and quiet sleep. For $US 20, I can’t complain at all about the accommodations.

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Balcony outside my room
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The Hi-Et, San Ignacio, Belize

San Ignacio Sites, Sounds, Eats and Drinks

San Ignacio is twinned with Santa Elena across the Macal River from it. As a tourist, the main purpose of visiting San Ignacio is to use it as a base for touring nearby attractions. There is little for the tourist in town that I found. However, there are a choice of decent restaurants and bars.

Eva’s, on Bullet Tree Road, has a decent selection of Belize and international dishes. I had Fried Chicken for $BZ 10, and a few Belikin Beers ($BZ 5 each). Guillermo, my waiter, also had a number of excellent suggestions of ways to spend my time in San Ignacio.

Mr. Greedy’s on Burns Ave is a good place for drinks. They have excellent happy hour deals. In addition, I had chicken wings there which were quite good, in the event you have a hankering for a taste of Buffalo in San Ignacio.

In the morning, there are a few places along Burn’s Avenue. One place, which didn’t have a name, served excellent breakfast burritos for $BZ 3. It is on Burns Avenue, on the left as you walk from the market square up towards the petrol station. You’ll see the line up of locals getting breakfast.

Xunantunich

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.

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Xunantunich is on the highway between San Ignacio and Benque. From San Ignacio, I took a “Benque Taxi.” All cars registration province is written on the cars license plate. Directed by a local, he said I could grab a taxi in San Ignacio with a B (for Benque), and that he would charge a low rate to get to Xunantunich, as he would have to go back to Benque anyway. I paid $BZ 4 for the ride, whereas the bus cost $BZ 1.75 or a Cayo taxi (one registered in San Ignacio, Cayo province) would charge $BZ 25. On the way back, I took the bus, which you can catch right outside the ferry.

The ferry crossing to Xunantunich is about 20 minutes from San Ignacio. You have to cross the Mopan river, which is accomplished by a hand cranked ferry.

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It is then a 20 minute walk up to main site. Entrance fee was $BZ 10. A guide can be hired there, but I chose to go without.

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 hummed “Save a Prayer” to myself, and imagined myself a member of a New Romantic band in 1985, even if I don’t quite look the part.

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And you wanted to dance, so I asked you to dance, but fear was in your soul. Some people call it a one night stand, but we can call it paradise.

More photos and text at my blog entry on Xunantunich.

Barton Creek Cave Tour, David’s Adventure Tours

I arranged an afternoon tour with David’s Adventure Tours. David’s is across from the market. David’s is owned and operated by Dave Simpson, an Afro-Mayan local. Dave’s speciality is tours to Barton Creek Cave, a water filled cave that is the source of Barton Creek. Dave was the one who started giving tours of the cave.

I had tried a couple different tour companies that morning, seeing if I could arrange a trip to Caracol, a large Mayan site not far from San Ignacio. Unfortunately, they all had minimum tour sizes (from 2 to 4 people), so everyone tried to put me on another tour. Most tried to sell the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal cave tour - the primary selling point seems to be the chance to see “human remains!”). I really wanted to see a Mayan ruin, and Dave was the only one who came up with a suggestion - self tour Xunantunich in the morning, and do a tour with him in the afternoon. Dave even turned me on to the “Benque taxi,” so before the tour I was very pleased with Dave in that he listened to what I wanted.

The Barton Creek Cave tour is usually $BZ 90, but as I was the only one going, I paid $BZ 120.

Dave is an interesting character - a dreadlocked rasta type with a very laid back attitude. It makes for a somewhat scattered tour, with Dave stopping to do a little shopping along the way, and often repeating himself. However, Dave is also very familiar with the area, and spices up his stories with personal anecdotes that make it very interesting. We had a few troubles along the way - Dave’s old pickup twice stalled, and I spent an hour sitting around staring at the green jungle as Dave tried to get his light working for the cave tour.

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Once we were in the cave, though, it was quite amazingly beautiful. The cave varies from a few feet wide to over 20 feet wide, and the ceiling soars up to 100 feet high in some places, while in others you need to duck down to get your canoe under the rocky outcrops. Dave does all the paddling, as guest you just hold the light and explore with your eyes.

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Dave’s promises adventure tours, and while it wasn’t exactly Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, I left feeling like I had received a very “authentic” experience. Dave’s is not slick, but it was enjoyable.

Posted by GregW 13:46 Archived in Belize Tagged backpacking air_travel Comments (0)

Snow Drifts, not Sand Dunes

I'll be home for Christmas. More than just a Christmas song...

snow 0 °C

Yesterday, I travelled down from my flat to Gatwick airport to catch a flight to Marrakech, Morocco. You might expect, therefore, that I am writing this while sipping mint tea on the roof of a riad overlooking the bustling Moroccan markets. I am not though. I am writing this from my London flat on a grey and cold day.

Due to the completely and totally unforeseeable winter circumstances - snow and cold - travel has been a complete mess here in the UK. On the weekend snow and ice had ferries, the Eurostar, trains and planes all sitting idly instead of moving people to their destinations. Yesterday, on Monday, more snow was projected later in the day, however the day started out clear but cold.

I headed down to Gatwick, and things looked good. There were a few delayed flights, but nothing more than 30 minutes. About half an hour before my flight, we were called to the gate. Walking towards the gate along a high elevated walkway, I could see that the clear, cold morning was turning into a wet, icy afternoon.

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My flight was scheduled to take off at 3:30. Just after 3:00, Gatwick closed its runway. The runway stayed closed for the next 4 plus hours. I watched the departures board. All it would tell me is "Marrakech - Please Wait," just like most of the rest of the flights.

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Between 6:00 and 7:00, BA cancelled all their flights that had been scheduled before 7:00 PM. EasyJet held off cancelling, keeping us all to "please wait." Around 7:00, the first few easyJet flights started to be cancelled. At about 7:30, my flight was cancelled. So was every other easyJet flight on the board. The airline information desk became a mad house.

I, the smart traveller, decided to skip the queue and go online. I went to the easyJet site and looked to switch my flight. There was nothing for the 22nd or 23rd of December. There was an early flight on the 24th of December.

This is where I made a mistake. I should have booked it, but I didn't. It was three days away, which seemed so far away, and would cut my vacation down to 6 days instead of 9 days. I think I was still in disbelief that it was happening, I think.

Instead I left the airport and went back home (on delayed trains). As I stood on the platform at Gatwick's train station, British Airway flights started taking off above me, the runway obviously finally re-opened.

On the train ride home I let the seven hour delay and finally cancellation sink in and situation become real. Once home, I went to rebook, but it was too late. Even the 24th wasn't available now. Nothing until after Christmas. Accepting those flights would turn a 9 day vacation into a 2 or 3 day vacation. Not really worth it, I felt. So instead, I asked for a refund.

Now it looks like I might spend Christmas here in London. Due to all the travel disruption over the past 4 days, there is an awful backlog of travellers trying to get some place. I may try to book something else, but I'm afraid that the airports and train stations will be chaotic places with too many people trying to get onto too few travel options.

Such is travel at winter. Sometimes you just can't get away.

Posted by GregW 00:35 Archived in England Tagged air_travel Comments (4)

Happy Anniversary, International Fliers!

First stop - Paris... Next stop... Mars?

sunny 17 °C

90 years ago today, the first international, scheduled passenger air service started up, flying between London and Paris. The Aircraft Transport and Travel flew a little four seater bi-plane between a field just outside of London and Le Bourget, just outside Paris. Flights cost 42 guineas, about 3 months wages for an average working man, and worth about £7000 in today's money.

It wasn't long until international air travel took off, of course. Just 30 years after that first flight, The De Havilland Comet was introduced, the first commercial jet entered service. Today, flying 'round the globe is pretty commonplace, and in most cases, a real pain in the ass.

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All that being said, its pretty amazing when you think about how far we've come in 90 years since a little 4 seater took off for Paris. Makes you wonder where we'll be flying in 90 years time.

Last call for Passenger Wesson for Virgin Galactic flight 508 to Mars. If you do not board within the next 5 minutes, your luggage will be removed from the flight and you will be denied boarding.

Posted by GregW 02:36 Archived in England Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

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